2021 has seen its fair share of female led action movies, with varying results. The decisive Black Widow (2021) didn’t exactly turn out to be the swansong Scarlett Johansson’s character deserved whereas Gunpowder Milkshake (2021) certainly had likeable performances but was mainly let down in its poor handling of the action. Then there was Jolt (2021), which the less said about the better.
This brings us to Kate, recently released on Netflix. While certainly not perfect it thankfully is able to rise above those mentioned by featuring well handled action scenes and bolstered with a committed performance from leading lady Mary Elizabeth Winstead.
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is one of the best assassins in the business, highly skilled with a perfect record. She is mostly a loner with her only real friend being her handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson).
During a mission Kate is forced to break her own moral code, leading her to assassinate a target in front of his young daughter. Because of this she makes plans to retire from the business. She informs Varrick of her decision, stating that her next job will be her last.
Before she completes her final mission she meets a handsome stranger called Stephen (Michiel Huisman). Sharing a bottle of wine, the two of them end up together in Kate’s room. After having sex Kate leaves abruptly in order to carry out her mission. Just as she is about to take her shot Kate begins to feel dizzy causing her to miss for the first time in her career.
Afterwards a car chase ensues, with Kate eventually crashing and waking up later in the hospital. She is told by a doctor that she has been exposed to Polonium and only has around 24 hours left to live. Rather than lie down and die, Kate decides to use her final hours in order to find out why she has been targeted. In doing so she will come into contact with teenager Ani (Miku Martineau) who is linked more to Kate’s past than she realizes.
Now one would never mistake the plot as being original. The idea of the protagonist rushing against time to solve their own murder dates back to Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A (1949), where Edmond O Brien walks into a police station to report his own murder.
Of course it has been used countless times since then. As well as the remake with Dennis Quaid, it memorably formed the basis of cult classic Crank (2005) as well as being the focal point more recently of the Ethan Hawke action vehicle 24 Hours to Live (2017). While that film didn’t exactly set the world on fire, I would certainly recommend it to action lovers, as it features a number of extremely well executed action sequences that were certainly on par with anything else released that year.
Similarly, Kate hasn’t exactly opened to great reviews but features numerous well executed action scenes, combining some finely choreographed hand to hand combat with ballistic shootouts. Admittedly I was slightly apprehensive during the opening 15 minutes of the film where we are treated to a CGI heavy, neon light infused car chase that seemed to jar with everything else in the film. Thankfully once this had passed Kate found itself fitting into a comfortable groove.
This marks only the second full length feature from Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who had previously helmed action fantasy The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016). Now, looking at the two features under his belt it is clear that no one will exclaim him as being a master storyteller. Well not yet at least.
What he does have going for him is a distinctive eye for visuals and a keen sense of pace when it comes to the action. It does help that the film takes place in Tokyo which sets it apart from other Hollywood actioners.
As mentioned, Kate is extremely generic. Scriptwriter Umair Aleem doesn’t have many credits to his name, with his only other feature length credit being Extraction (2015). No, not the recent Chris Hemsworth blockbuster but the 2015 DTV movie from Steven C. Miller which starred a clearly bored Bruce Willis.
Still, Miller was able to overcome a bored Willis and a predictable script and inject some fun into what turned out to be one of Willis’ better DTV efforts. Likewise, Nicolas-Troyan does the same with the script for Kate. While it may have thinly drawn characters and scenarios, he imbues proceedings with enough energy that you don’t have much time to notice. Smartly there are also some more comedic moments interspersed amongst the action that helps lighten the tone.
Additionally, Nicolas-Troyan gets generally good performances from his cast, although some are shortchanged in terms of screen time and character development. As mentioned, Winstead is 100% committed to her role, with her character taking enough punishment throughout the running time to at least make you feel as if she is unstoppable (which of course, she really is).
She gets battered and bruised during nearly every one of the film’s fight scenes, the best of these being her hand to hand takedown of a Yakuza gang in a luxury restaurant. A later gun battle amongst the tight alleys and rooftops of Tokyo tops anything that was in the similarly set Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021).
The quality of the action isn’t surprising considering Kate is from 87North Productions. Ran by David Leitch, Chad Stahelski and Kelly McCormick, it is the same company behind the John Wick franchise and Atomic Blonde. That is quite the pedigree and it would be silly to expect Kate to be in the same league as those classics but it certainly shares a lot of the same recognizable DNA.
It isn’t only Winstead that gets in on the action. Surprisingly, screen veteran Jun Kunimura gets to square off against Tadanobu Asano in a brief but memorable sword duel. Both actors only appear in limited roles, so fans of either may be disappointed, however Kunimura makes the most of his brief screen time, giving a sense of gravitas to what could have otherwise been a one note villain. He can truly say in a few glances what some actors would need a hundred words to convey.
Woody Harrelson is arguably the most famous actor to appear in Kate, but like Asano and Kunimura, he doesn’t have a great deal of screen time. As expected he still is able to bring his usual screen quality to the role but it would have been nice if there was more for him to do.
Other than Winstead, the most screen time is taken up by relative newcomer Miku Martineau. At first she comes across as the typical annoying teenage character so prevalent in Hollywood action movies and thrillers, but she begins to create an interesting dynamic alongside Winstead with the more annoying aspects of her character falling by the wayside.
Sure Kate may be generic, and it’s certainly not going to change the face of action cinema, but for those looking for a surefire adrenaline rush of quickfire action with little in the way of plot to get in the way will not find a better fix than Kate.
It is certainly better than many cinema releases this year, so do yourself a favour, get comfy and fire up your Netflix account and give Kate a go.
Plot: 2.5/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 4/5 Overall: 3.8/5