Style over substance doesn’t even begin to cover the flashy but empty thrills of Kate, a Netflix original action film which plays a lot like a video game. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Kate, a highly skilled assassin working in Japan with her long-time handler and best mate Varrick (Woody Harrelson). The two have a rule: no kids. So when an assignment in Osaka sees Kate take out a mark in front of his young daughter, she is wracked with guilt. It’s a decision that will come back to haunt her in unexpected ways.
This is the second feature from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan whose debut was the Snow White and the Huntsman follow-up, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, but it is producer David Leitch’s mark you can see most clearly on the project. Kate is in the mold of Leitch’s movies John Wick and Atomic Blonde , even as it’s nowhere near as good as the former and is about on a par with the latter. Here we have a zippy action movie packed with cool moves where bullets fall like rain and plot is an afterthought. This narrative-light approach is actually in Kate’s favor.
Unlike Atomic Blonde which tied itself in knots with twists that no one cared about, Kate’s premise is incredibly simple. Ten months after the events in Osaka, Kate is in Tokyo. At a bar she meets a man (Michiel Huisman, in a role that’s barely more than a cameo) who drugs her with Polonium and gives her acute radiation sickness. She has just 24 hours to live, during which time her health will rapidly deteriorate. Kate’s mission is to find out on whose orders she was poisoned and why, and to enact a bloody revenge. Or in video game terms – it’s basically ‘horde mode’ – you must kill as many faceless baddies as you can, ideally leading you to the final boss before your health runs out and you die.
On the plus, this gives Winstead a chance to really shine as an action hero. And she is brilliant. Following on from a very charismatic turn in Birds of Prey, Winstead plays another damaged loner with exceptional fighting skills. She owns the screen in set piece after set piece, growing scrappier and more desperate as her time runs out. If you like a lot of violence, Kate could be for you. If you prefer a bit of heart or morality, move along. There is something a bit unsettling about the countless Asian men who are casually offed in droves here. And since the collateral damage is so extensive, there’s no consequence to any of the fatalities. We know our lead is definitely going to die by the end of the film, so there’s not really any stakes to play for at all.
Investment, such as there is, then falls to the character of the young girl whose father Kate killed in Osaka. This is Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a precocious and foul-mouthed kid who’s the end of the bloodline for a Yakuza boss’ family. Kate kidnaps Ani in an attempt to reach her uncle but instead finds a kid who much like herself has been abandoned at a young age and raised in a world of violence. This is Martineau’s movie debut, and there’s something slightly reminiscent of Natalie Portman’s role in Leon about the character, although Ani is considerably more annoying than Portman’s Matilda. Ani is Kate’s last mission – her redemptive arc – but unfortunately you just don’t care enough about her for this to carry any emotional weight at all.
But then emotion isn’t really what Kate is for. The flashy Tokyo setting of the main body of the film is chaotic and alluring. There’s one car chase sequence that looks so impossible that it again thrusts you into a video game mindset, while the soundtrack, often accompanying a wild fight sequence, is pumping and frenetic. At 106 minutes the movie isn’t exactly long but could still have afforded a few minutes shaved off to maintain its breakneck pace from start to finish. Indeed, what would really have benefitted Kate is a theatrical release. Ideally, this is a film that assaults the senses; it’s noisy and shiny and fast and violent, and Winstead will keep you glued to the screen. That way you won’t notice that there’s not a great deal else going on here. On Netflix, it’s a stylish trifle that still might have you glancing at your phone between slayings.
Kate is available to stream on Netflix now.