Kate debuts on Netflix on Sept. 10.
There seems to be an obsession with the idea of women being powerful and indestructible assassins going around as of late, with the scripts being entirely written by men. In this fantasy, these femme fatales will stop at nothing to seek revenge against their oppressor, slowly losing their humanity as they get closer to their goal. In Kate, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the title character, the story is just that: an idyllic fantasy of a woman with limited time to exact vengeance against the people who poisoned her. With only 24 hours to live, Kate must somehow power through her rapidly degenerating body and battle the Yakuza to get to the man she believes is responsible for her predicament.
The film has the makings of a good, slick, action-packed thriller with Winstead at the helm, who at the time had just finished DC’s Birds of Prey. Kate could have been the next Atomic Blonde, but instead majorly falls short with its lack of originality and unfortunate Asian tropes.
With very little time left, Kate discovers who poisoned her: the head of a clan in the Yakuza, Kijima (Jun Kunimura), whose brother Kate had assassinated a few months prior. Enraged, Kate pursues every lead to find him. After mass murdering a bunch of his men, Kate is told she can find Kijima through his teenage niece Ani (Miku Martineau). Kate then kidnaps the teen and demands access to her uncle, which Ani sadly is unable to provide.
The most annoying part of this newfound relationship between Kate and Ani is that it feels like the white savior trope. After Kate saves Ani from rival gangs, the teen turns into a fangirl for the vengeful assassin and follows her around as her sidekick. The characterization of Ani seems more like an adorable anime archetype rather than a traumatized teenager. Sure, there were serious circumstances that caused this turn, but it’s still unwarranted. It was also unsettling to find the Japanese-born Ani asking everyone to speak English to her fellow Japanese brethren, as Japanese is widely preferred over English in Japan.
The film could be forgiven for its tedious and predictable plot if it had some exhilarating action, but unfortunately, the fight scenes are rushed and leave Kate looking more like the Terminator than an actual human being whose body is gradually shutting down. Not to mention, a tenacious white woman brutally kill multiple Asian men during the first two acts was extremely uncomfortable to watch, especially as the Asian community is still recovering from mass anti-Asian hate crimes. The skirmishes between Kate and the Yakuza are particularly unsettling for Asian viewers — especially during a scene in which Kate barges into a room and immediately shoots one of the men in the head. As he’s dying, she finishes the job without batting an eye.
It was only several scenes earlier that Kate was seen as wanting to leave the assassin business to have a normal life and potentially a family. All of that was taken from her because of this poisoning, so it makes sense for her to want revenge for the future she can no longer have. But as she continues her murderous rampage, her humanity is stripped away in order to become this violent fighting machine or, as the film wants you to believe, “a total badass.”
Despite the lackluster fight scenes and the dull protagonists, the film’s third act gets interesting as we get to know the Yakuza head, Kijima. Kunimura brings a subtle benignity as the solemn leader and commands almost every scene he’s in with just a simple look. It is because of this character that the third act is tolerable and audiences can begin to sympathize with Kate. Unfortunately, this comes too late for anyone to really care what happens to her.
The most wasted actor in the film is Woody Harrelson, who plays Varick, Kate’s creepy one-dimensional handler who had groomed her into becoming an assassin since she was a child. Harrelson really seemed out of place and lacked chemistry with Winstead’s stoic character. It’s hard to believe Varick raised Kate as his own daughter, as all their interactions felt more like awkward coworker small talk rather than a familial relationship.
Netflix Spotlight: September 2021
There is something to be said about a film that uses the backdrop of Japan and the tired use of the Yakuza. Kate does try to feature many prominent Japanese pop culture icons in the story, including rock band BAND-MAID and a small cameo featuring MIYAVI, who seems to have an interesting backstory, but is never truly explored. The use of Japanese culture is all just for optics and the fantasy of what outsiders believe is their way of life.
Following the same formula as this summer’s other bland female empowerment films (also written by men) — Gunpowder Milkshake and The Protégé — the typical “badass” assassin who seeks revenge against the men who threaten her way of life, Kate is predictable, somewhat triggering, and boring, filled with uninspiring action sequences.