Kate (2021)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 9/18/21
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, cameo by Band-Maid

"Death is the time for beginnings."

Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a superb assassin who wants to retire and have some semblance of a normal life. Her handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), promises her just one more job, but we all know how that's going to go down. She's poisoned right before her last hit and misses her mark, which triggers some infighting within a Yakuza clan in Tokyo. With less than 24 hours to live, Kate declares war on the Yakuza and dedicates the rest of her life to killing whoever poisoned her. The only way to get close to her target is to kidnap his teenaged niece Ani (Miku Martineau), and they eventually form an uneasy alliance. Of course, revenge is never a simple matter, and the predictable ending comes as no surprise.

Female action cinema is enjoying a significant comeback right now, which is great except that most everything is going straight to streaming. Netflix has exclusive distribution rights to "Kate" as well as "Maria" (2019) and "Gunpowder Milkshake" (2021), with no plans to release physical versions. This really sucks because I hate streaming services and subscription services. The streaming experience is terrible, which forces me to rely on the bootleg market to get access to these movies. It's like trying to track down rare and out-of-print movies in the 1990's all over again, which is annoying and disappointing. Fortunately, "Kate" got a very limited theatrical release, which was in one local theater on a Wednesday afternoon with exactly two showings, and I was the only one there.

Apart from the frustrating distribution bullshit, I enjoyed the film quite a lot. Even though it's cliché, derivative, formulaic, predictable, and suffers from poor visual effects, it succeeds where "Yakuza Princess" (2021) faltered in that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is able to emotionally engage the audience and elevate the film above its genre trappings. She continues to hone her action persona and performs nearly all of her own stunts, which is very impressive. The gunplay is very satisfying and the brutal fight choreography is excellent, although weak cinematography and editing obscure a lot of the action. The visual effects are a mixed bag, but I didn't notice any gratuitous digital blood, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, the film gets off to a rough start with an embarrassingly unconvincing CGI car chase, which leaves a bad taste and lowers expectations for the rest of the film. Thankfully, it never gets any worse than that, and the visual effects team manages to redeem itself later on with an extremely well-done decapitation scene.

While I appreciated the downbeat ending and how unapologetically bleak the film was, it borrows way too much from "La Femme Nikita" (1990) when it doesn't really need to. All of the flashbacks of Kate's childhood and training are unnecessary, and all they do is detract from the story and remind the audience that they've seen it all before. The Japanese setting adds a nice exotic touch and reinforces Kate's status as both an outsider and an underworld operative. The music isn't particularly memorable, although one of my favorite J-Rock bands (Band-Maid) makes a cameo appearance at a night club where Ani is. Miku Martineau gives an appropriately annoying performance as a spirited and headstrong bilingual teenager who is also an outsider in her own culture. The dynamic between Ani and Kate is tediously formulaic, but they made it work and I enjoyed their interactions for the most part. While "Kate" isn't a great movie and doesn't really bring anything new to the genre, I enjoyed watching Mary Elizabeth Winstead's vicious, bloody, and single-minded journey into revenge, realization, and redemption.