Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Notable Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Miku Martineau, Woody Harrelson, Tadanobu Asano, Michiel Huisman, Jun Kunimura, Miyavi, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Kayuza Tanabe
“Death is the time for beginnings.”
Maybe I’ve said this before in one of my previous reviews, but it’s worth noting again. At this point, it’s hard not to look at action cinema as Pre-John Wick and Post-John Wick. While the film in reference is in itself a love letter to the action cinema of the 80s, a vicious combination of the untouchable heroes of Hollywood and the brutal action excellence of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed, the combination and stylistic choices have proven to be wildly influential since its release.
Mid-tier action films, where this style lives, has been mostly relegated to streaming services and Netflix, in all of its domineering power, has delivered one of the best post-John Wick flicks. Kate rampages about in rapid-fire pacing, gorging on the Black Rain influenced style of a neon-soaked Tokyo night and immersing a classic yakuza war story with brash modern characters and enough action sequences to make John Woo jealous. Kate is a film built on the shoulders of giants, but it’s incredibly well-executed style, action, and pacing make it one of the best bullet-riddled pieces of genre cinema of 2021.
Kate (Winstead) is a top tier assassin but after a hit in Osaka goes awry, she starts to question her life choices under the guidance of her handler, V (Harrelson). With one last job on the line, Kate finds herself out of time. Poisoned with a radioactive substance that will cripple her in hours, she sets off to finish the job and attempt to reclaim her own life in the process.
After making an action splash as Huntress in Birds of Prey, Mary Elizabeth Winstead kicks the ensemble cast to the curb for Kate, embracing her inner action star chops for the titular character. While the character represents a history of ‘hitman with a heart’ tropes from action cinema past, enough so that the film even deems it necessary to team her up with a young woman to give her some buddy-team banter, there is a sense of humanity that Winstead injects into the character that performs admirably in the world crafted. She walks into the film and simply owns it, right from the beginning, and as her body and skills deteriorate from the radioactive poison, her sense of humanity only shows more. The audience is further pushed on board the Kate-train as it inevitably heads towards the gorge it is destined to crash into.
Naturally, Kate is strutting through a hyper-stylized world of a neon blistered Tokyo urban nightscape and once the film has set up its basic premise, a time-sensitive run n’ gun scenario of the character shooting, cutting, and exploding her way through a yakuza outfit, it never stops moving. Even when the film steps aside to introduce new characters or develop the relationship between Kate and Ani, in a surprisingly heartfelt performance by Miku Martineau, it’s so efficient in its smart use of tropes and character writing that it never slows the pace. Kate is a lean, mean and violence producing machine punctuated by incredibly nuanced camera work, tone setting, and crisp and stylish cinematography.
The yakuza war plot line that sets up the backdrop of Kate is always a welcome set up for an action film and the secondary cast here adds to the almost fantastical nature of its paranoia and depth of danger. The appearance of Tadanobu Asano and Jun Kunimura add an unexpected prestige and layering to the film while a cameo (and incredible fight sequence) with Miyavi highlights one of the best sequences in the entire film. Hell, even if we didn’t have Winstead as the lead, the story of the yakuza war would have carried an entire film. To see an outside character navigate it just adds to the fun.
Last but not least, it should be mentioned just how impressive the action sequences are in the film. Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, notable for being the director of the maligned The Huntsman: Winter’s War, embraces the fact that this film is an 87North production (a production company run by the John Wick guys David Leitch and Chad Stahelski) and uses all of their assets to maximum effect. The stunts, outside of a strange neon popped car chase in the first act, are realistic and brutal, the violence is stylish as hell, and the choreography of the fights - both hand-to-hand combat and the gun battles - ranks up there as some of the best in modern action. It certainly homages some of the classics, fans of heroic bloodshed cinema will note the dual pistol and slow motion of the third act, but it always strikes when the iron is hot. There’s always a bit of humor tossed into the mix for levity, but the action is non-stop and incredibly well done.
While Kate had a strong trailer, it’s one of those films that is unrighteously destined for the Netflix graveyard - where films go to die only days after premiering on the streaming service. It’s a downright shame. Kate is simply one of the most gorgeously shot, impeccably paced, and brilliantly executed slices of action cinema in recent years. Its only real deterrent is the streamlined and trope-heavy premise, but like its influences from John Wick, the simplicity allows the execution to take precedence and that’s where Kate soars. Don’t skip out on this one. If you have Netflix, you should be watching now.