It’s been a busy year for that busiest of professions, the best-in-class lone female assassin. Killing dudes, getting revenge, revealing vulnerability by unexpectedly caring for a child, bathing in neon light, ripping off Crank...these daughters of John Wick and Atomic Blonde truly have it all. Kate doesn’t seem to be in possession of first-mover advantage in the female-killer-versus-vulnerability subgenre; in 2021 alone, its release trails The Protégé, Jolt and its Netflix stablemate Gunpowder Milkshake, clearly the result of some algorithmic analysis of the Wick box office and maybe also some Blonde streaming numbers. If that sounds programmatic, well, yes, that’s how it can feel to watch them, even for fans of holding two guns whilst jumping through the air.
Kate can’t even claim the novelty of a movie star trying her hand at badassery; Mary Elizabeth Winstead performed a comic variation on this type of character in last year’s Birds of Prey, where she played the DC Comics character Huntress as both bloodthirsty and socially awkward. Her Kate is a more straightforward creation: She fires precision kill shots from rooftops; she has the obligatory male-mentor father-figure handler played by another name star, in this case Woody Harrelson; she has easy-to-remember rules (in Kate’s case, don’t involve children at the scene of her crimes) that exist to be broken (guess who shows up at her opening hit). And, of course, she wants out of this life.
Before she can become the first female assassin to retire with no fuss whatsoever, there’s, well, some fuss, in Crank form: Kate is severely poisoned, and suddenly has just about 24 hours to live. She chooses to spend this time gunning for revenge, of course, a plan that is complicated not just by the sheer number of Yakuza henchmen she has to fight her way through but also Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), a girl who is both the daughter of a recent target and the key to locating Kate’s unseen enemy.
Let’s dig into the numbers: Kate features four extended sequences that involve hand-to-knife-to-gun-to-hand combat, plus one truncated car chase that looks simultaneously great (Kate steals a car with a neon-pink-lit interior) and awful (when the car crashes, it looks like she’s off-roading in Toontown). The fight scenes are brutal, easy to follow and crisply shot by director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Huntsman: Winter’s War), expertly whipping around the rollercoaster tracks connecting Winstead’s dramatic urgency and the cheap thrills of well-timed kicks, jammed guns and surprise dismemberments. They are why people watch movies like this, and if they don’t have the full stamina of Wick or Blonde (whose director, David Leitch, executive produced here), they come closer than most. I didn’t stopwatch any of these scenes because they were too engrossing, but I’d estimate they add up to around 24 minutes of the movie’s 106-minute running time. Subtract credits, and maybe 25% of this movie is what you might call “the good stuff.”
Is that number, plus the obligatory neon-soaked lighting that seems especially cinematic in an era when digital pipelines result in action movies resembling oatmeal on an overcast morning, really enough? Didn’t another violent, high-contrast B-movie called Yakuza Princess just come out like a week ago? There’s another unpleasant factor to consider, too: At its worst, Kate treats Japanese culture with a kind of disposable exoticism—window dressing there to be blasted into pieces by a white woman on a rampage. But if its attempts to give a few Asian characters enough inner life to make up for depicting Japan as a factory that mostly produces fashionable rock bands, noodles and Yakuza henchmen don’t quite land, at least the movie is willing to indulge the risk of utilizing an actual setting. The recent Gunpowder Milkshake and Jolt favored the kind of archetypal every-city trappings that are supposed to aid stylization but often make the whole movie feel like an arch exercise.
And for all its other familiar elements, Kate isn’t especially arch. Though it shamelessly accessorizes every element of Winstead, her ASICS sneakers and mid-fight haircut as important as her scarred-up body and cakings of blood, it largely avoids the winky smugness that sets in when filmmakers become certain that they’re making an instant cult favorite. Winstead and newcomer Martineau are especially good at avoiding those winks, instead playing their parts with commitment and even sincerity, even when the dialogue isn’t quite there and some of the interpersonal drama is kind of a snooze. It would be a stretch to call Kate a modern Western, but it has a certain gunslinger sensibility that mitigates any self-conscious edginess. There’s even a modicum of poignancy as Winstead fights her personal battle through increasing bodily disrepair. Despite the existence of so many movies like it, Kate tires you out on its own terms.
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Writers: Umair Aleen
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Patricia Martineau, Woody Harrelson, Michael Huisman
Release Date: September 10, 2021
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.