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On the Netflix screen for “Kate,” the description says “this movie is Violent, Exciting.” That first adjective is quite accurate—this film is wall-to-wall carnage. I must respectfully disagree with that second adjective, however, unless you enjoy watching someone else play an uninvolving video game for almost two hours. If this type of thing turns you on, please have at it. There’s a cynical air to the lackluster proceedings, as if the filmmakers assume you’ll stumble across “Kate” and watch it simply because it’s there and you’re too lazy to scroll down the screen for something better. That appears to be Netflix’s rationale for their mid-budget actioners, and it can provide much satisfaction if there’s a good story welded to the set-pieces. But Umair Aleem’s script is so paint-by-numbers familiar that it leaves you wishing you’d watched one of the better movies it’s ripping off. I believe Netflix also carries several of those.
After her superb and memorable turn in “Birds of Prey,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead is handed the reins of her own action movie. Winstead is not only a very credible agent of violence, she also provides interesting approaches to her scenes. There’s something off-kilter and unique about her, something you can’t quite put your finger on, yet you feel its presence. I find her compulsively watchable, which is why I found this dreck so aggravating. She’s clearly having fun here, but she deserves better than the warmed-over plot details every single female assassin movie must contain. The assassin is always a lone wolf, deserted by family before being adopted by a male authority figure who trains and mentors her before ultimately becoming some form of adversary she must deal with against her will.
Here, the male mentor is phoned in by Woody Harrelson. And I don’t mean that just figuratively—80% of his performance is literally on the phone. If you look closely into his eyes, you can see the ATM where he deposited the check from this movie. Harrison’s Varrick is the handler for Winstead’s titular character, the one person Kate trusts. When the film opens, she’s in Osaka, Japan on an assignment that predictably goes awry. Despite the rules against shooting people with children present, Kate takes a shot that takes out her target in front of his kid. Fast-forward to Kate’s “last mission,” where she’ll eventually team up with a rambunctious teenager named Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau). Guess what her connection is to that prior execution?
Before we get to Ani, Kate engages in rumpy-pumpy with a guy who fatally poisons her with something that will kill her in 24 hours. She’ll not only need to find out why she’s been murdered, but she’ll also need to avenge her own death. The only thing that keeps her going is hourly shots of adrenaline. So, we’ve got an injection of “D.O.A.” here (the hideous '80s remake, that is, not the original). In addition to the gruesome external wounds and scars Kate will endure battling countless adversaries, the poison is quickly rotting her from the inside out. Numerous scenes of barfing ensue, as well as some teeth falling out and blood pouring out of unwelcome places unprovoked. This adds a healthy dash of “The Fly” to the proceedings (the awesome '80s remake, that is, not the original).
I dug the body horror and how Winstead rolls with it. It gives Kate a physical vulnerability that wages war with the genre’s insistence that its protagonists are crack shots while their competition can’t hit the side of a barn. It’s when “Kate” tries for emotional vulnerability that it fails. Ani is kidnapped by Kate because she’s a relative of Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the man who may have ordered the poisonous hit. Flashbacks draw parallels between Ani and her kidnapper, and after it appears Ani’s family wants to kill her, Kate drags her along on her quest. Martineau does her best playing a rebellious teenager whose tough exterior masks a scared kid, but the script gives the two actors the barest minimum of bonds to play. It’s far more superficial than moving.
Ani keeps referring to Kate as “a Terminator,” but this movie owes a lot more to Ah-nuld’s '80 classic, “Commando,” especially when Kate has to save her ward from the bad guys. Mark Lester handled Schwarzenegger mowing down an entire military with a much lighter and more entertaining touch than director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan does here. He depicts violence in joyless and monotonous fashion. There are only so many ways bullets can enter heads and torsos, and while I enjoy the majority of those ways, it gets real tired real fast here.
“Kate” also wants to be as cool as the Asian action movies it seeks to emulate with a White lead, but the end result fetishizes Asian culture and Japan with the embarrassing fervor of a horny dog humping a leg. The overdone effect is too hilarious and embarrassing to be offensive, but it is cringe-inducing. A major death scene is highlighted by a gigantic, smiling and waving neon kitty cat. J-Pop blares on the soundtrack while Kate strolls toward the camera flanked by Yakuza hitmen. There’s even a gay adversary who is introduced getting a fish pedicure before unveiling a back covered in letter tattoos. The camera ogles him like he’s some exotic object before he preens and sways while battling Kate. He quickly meets one of the most gruesome demises offered up as red meat to a bloodthirsty audience, which is a shame as he’s more interesting than any of the main villains. In a film as dully derivative as this, I’ll take my pleasures where I can.
On Netflix today.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate
Miku Martineau as Ani
Woody Harrelson as Varrick
Tadanobu Asano as Renji
Michiel Huisman as Stephen
Jun Kunimura as Kjima
Miyavi as Jojima
Amelia Crouch as Teen Kate
Ava Caryofyllis as Child Kate