In my last blog entry, I went into a long discussion weighing the benefits of streaming at home versus going to a theater. In summary, I explained that I tend to go easier on streaming releases because they take less time and money to watch. But tonight, I finally discovered an important counterpoint: Why watch a particular streaming release if I’m already online? Even at the most deluxe multiplex, I only have ten or twelve movies to choose from, and a narrow window to see them on the big screen. But if I’m streaming a film — especially on a service like Netflix or HBO Max — then I’ve got literally dozens of new releases and so many thousands of films in the back catalogue, all at my fingertips.
As such, a review of any streaming release must factor in the question, “Why would I watch this when I could watch literally anything else on this exact same platform, with no additional cost in money or time?”
So here’s Kate, an action vehicle for Mary Elizabeth Winstead. And it’s produced by David Leitch and Kelly McCormick, the husband/wife duo at the core of Team John Wick.
We set our stage in Japan, as some shadowy unnamed syndicate of assassins is after the largest of the Yakuza clans. Winstead plays the eponymous Kate (with numerous other young actors playing the character in flashback scenes), who was raised to be a stone-cold killer by her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson). Long story short, Kate is assigned to take out a high-ranking officer in the Yakuza clan — and she does — but things nearly go sideways when the target’s young daughter (Ani, played by newcomer Miku Patricia Martineau) is there to witness her father’s brutal murder.
Ten months later, Kate is still troubled by this accidental lapse in her personal code of honor. So she’s agreed to one last hit — shooting down Kijima himself (Jun Kunimura), master of the whole Yakuza clan — before taking an early retirement. The kicker: Kate botches the job because she’s been poisoned.
Yeah, it turns out that someone — very likely in the Yakuza — was somehow able to slip a rare polonium isotope into Kate’s drink, so now she’s got roughly 24 hours until she’s dead of radiation poisoning. What better to do with that remaining time than bust some heads?
To start with, the cast is solid. The Yakuza side is anchored by Tadanobu Asano and Jun Kunimura, each of whom is nothing short of a legendary talent. And of course we’ve got Woody Harrelson, whose IMDb list (believe it or not) is almost as extensive at this point. All three of them are tragically underutilized, and Harrelson in particular seems to be leaning back on his old established schtick on his way to another paycheck, but they’re all reliable supporting players and the film benefits from their presence.
Elsewhere, Miku Patricia Martineau turns out to be the film’s secret weapon. Though she’s not exactly a prodigy, Martineau does an elegant job of selling the character’s development arc. I might add that the character could’ve easily been an annoying sack of pain to lug around — and it’s not like Ani is all that proactive in moving the plot along — but Martineau doesn’t wear out her welcome and she acts well enough off of Winstead, so Mission Accomplished.
But of course this is Winstead’s show from start to finish. I must applaud the choices she’s made at aging artistically — transitioning out of her thirties is not the easiest thing for an actor to do, and this pivot toward a career as an action star makes all kinds of sense. In fact, it’s almost too perfect.
Yes, the film perfectly makes the argument that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is more than capable as an action lead. But here’s the thing: We already knew that. We saw Birds of Prey a year ago. And that was after 10 Cloverfield Lane. And The Thing (2011). And Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Maybe it’s just because I’m a fan and I adore her and the movies she’s made, but this movie didn’t tell me anything about Mary Elizabeth Winstead that I didn’t already know and love.
Part of the problem is with Kate herself. This is her last day alive, she’s in constant pain, she’s got literally nothing to live for except killing whomever poisoned her, so of course Kate’s not going to be all that talkative about who she is and where she came from. I get that. The problem is that it doesn’t leave much for Winstead to work with. She’s got the pain of dying from radiation poisoning, she’s got the trauma of spending her entire childhood killing people, and that’s it. With one minor exception.
I’ve long believed that comic relief is indispensable in any story, for the simple reason that it shows our characters can take joy in something. That’s a crucial dimension of any character: What brings them joy. In Kate’s case, that’s limited to “Boom Boom Lemon”, which is apparently the most rare soft drink in all Japan. No joke, it’s a long-running subplot about how Kate desperately wants one last bottle of Boom Boom Lemon. Sorry, but that’s just not funny enough to work as effective comic relief, and it’s not endearing enough to show anything deeper about the character.
The other big problem is the movie around Winstead. It’s a movie about an international assassin trying to find and terminate her would-be killer, but we’ve already got The Protege. It’s a movie about a killer in constant trouble because of her pesky conscience, but it came out so soon after Ava. Oh, but this one’s about an assassin struggling with her unwitting role as a mother figure, grappling with the terrible secret that she’s the one who made her new surrogate daughter an orphan. Yeah, there’s this movie called Gunpowder Milkshake…
To be clear, I don’t necessarily have a problem that the film is derivative. And I’m sure it wasn’t the filmmakers’ fault that Kate just happened to come out so soon after so many other female-driven action vehicles came out. But when a movie looks like it shamelessly cribbed from so many other recent films that were themselves transparently derivative in many ways, that’s not a good look.
The big problem here is that the movie doesn’t really have a strong enough hook to call its own. There’s a bit of talk about mortality and family and the perpetually destructive greed of Western colonialism, but nothing anywhere close to cohesive or compelling. The best this movie has is the central notion of a doomed action hero. Yes, we’ve seen plenty of action films in which the hitman knowingly takes up a dangerous career or has a contract on their head, so we and the hero all know they’re probably not getting out of this alive. But with this movie, the audience and Kate herself both know for a fact that she’s a dead girl walking. We know for an absolute certainty that she’s going for broke because she has literally nothing to lose.
It’s a neat premise. But it’s not enough.
So what about the action scenes? Well, first of all, CGI car chase scenes simply don’t work. We should’ve learned this twenty years ago with the first The Fast and the Furious movie, and all the VFX innovations in the time since have not made this any less true. Yes, CGI cars allow for certain shots and swoops that wouldn’t be physically possible, but it defeats the whole purpose of a car chase. If we’re not made to feel that wind in our hair, if the flying shards of metal don’t have any physical weight to them, then really, what’s the point?
I want to like the fight scenes. I really do. There’s no doubt in my mind that a ton of effort went into choreographing every move, every shot, every edit, and again, Winstead is such a supremely underrated action star that she totally sells every hit. But then I see some stuntman pulling his punches, not using lethal force when he has every opportunity, and I’m disappointed to see David Leitch’s name attached to this.
Speaking of which, I’d love the gun fights a lot more if the guns didn’t jam or run empty three or four times in every scene. And the filmmakers should give themselves a slap on the back of the head for ripping a scene directly out of John Wick: Chapter 3. Seriously, David, did you think we wouldn’t notice that?!
For miscellaneous notes, I appreciated the film’s dazzling use of neon lights, but bi lighting is practically a cliche at this point and again, the neon-drenched aesthetic is nothing that Gunpowder Milkshake and so many other action films haven’t already done better. It’s refreshing to hear a J-Pop infused soundtrack and the Japanese setting has a lot of character, but it bears remembering that international crime thrillers are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the film totally fails at utilizing the international setting into anything unique.
The bottom line — like I always say — is that if you’re not going to do anything new, you had damn well better do it right. And this movie doesn’t do it right.
I can’t possibly stress enough how much I wanted to like Kate. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has long since proven that she needs and deserves her own action movie franchise, so of course she’s great in this, but she’s done better work elsewhere. The action in the film is passable, but the fight scenes in any movie produced by David goddamn Leitch should be so much better. Such a damn shame that all the talent here was stuck with a cliched and cellophane screenplay, directed as the sophomore effort by the guy who previously brought us The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
I don’t like this movie, and I honestly don’t hate it — I was just bored by it. I didn’t even like all those other female-driven action films I alluded to earlier, but all of them followed the old established playbook with more flair and commitment than this one. Hell, Gunpowder Milkshake is still streaming on Netflix, and that movie did so much of what Kate tried to do, and did it a hundred times better.
So, there’s my recommendation: Skip this one, load up Gunpowder Milkshake instead.