Sans comic-book titles such as Zack Snyder’s Justice League or James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, both of which technically don’t belong to the genre as we traditionally define it, Netflix’s Kate is so far one of the better action offerings of 2021. It is both a refreshing departure from the streamer’s typical algorithmic plotting, wherein the plot turns every twenty minutes to make certain nobody at home has been distracted by a phone or two, as well as the only post-Atomic Blonde riff on John Wick to fully succeed in multiple departments: theme, fight choreography, and performance. The narrative turns are certainly as predictable as any spy/assassin romp, with the inevitable villainous twist copying every film before it. However, at this point I’m beginning to accept it’s simply part and parcel to the DNA of spy/assassin romps. Much like Marvel pictures have customs, cliches, and formulas we forgive, so do this brand of thriller. They’re an excuse to show off glorious, intricately choreographed set pieces where men and women engage in bloody, creative hand-to-hand combat and/or gunplay. Kate has the audacity to not only deliver on such dirty mayhem, but also to delve into themes of honor, family legacy, and above all, American imperialism.
As the titular Kate, a sublimely physical performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead reminded me of John David Washington in a very different role as the titular Beckett a few short weeks ago. Like Beckett, Kate is severely injured through the bulk of her story as she struggles to navigate her way to safety and justice. Her body poisoned with polonium and her cells beginning to break down, she has only twenty-four hours to find the target responsible and finish the job she initially failed. Winstead shares the screen with Miku Martineau, a young Japanese actress on the rise and deservedly so, as she avoids the annoying pitfalls of so many “child” actors/characters that have preceded her. You know the drill, the child whines and opines and refuses to cooperate and ultimately does herself and our protagonist trying to protect them an incredible inconvenience. Despite serving as an obstacle for half of the film’s running time, Miku’s Ani never comes to this. Kate never loses sight of her point of view as an innocent bystander abandoned, then kidnapped for the sins of her elders. Tadanobu Asano (Mortal Kombat) appears as a Yakuza lieutenant, and Michael Huisman (Game of Thrones) as a man hired to seduce Kate before an all-important gig. As Kate’s handler and quasi-father figure, Woody Harrelson carries his typical atypical charm, smarm, and eccentric pizzazz, and unlike previous roles of late, he’s actually allowed room to act. Japanese star Jun Kunimara nearly steals the entire film in a late showcase of badassery so impressive I had to stifle my own cheering for fear of waking my wife in the next room. Indeed, the true star of Kate are the choreographers, for Winstead and co. walk the walk when taking part in the film’s winning, thrilling, elaborate fight sequences. From an early melee inside a dojo to a brutal, mid-film one-on-one between Winstead and Japanese singer Miyavi as a psycho killer boy toy, the action doesn’t let up and doesn’t allow you to blink.
Themes of imperialism are important here, in a film about a white American woman killing mostly Japanese folk, even if they are Yakuza. Director Cedric Nicholas emphasizes the post-modern decay of 2021 Tokyo, clearly influenced by Blade Runner’s vision of urban dystopia. The city is seedy, sensual, overcrowded, claustrophobic, and teeming with the yuck and muck of garish capitalism, an eyesore encroaching on every corner of the Tokyo of yore. Certainly, that is the city according to Kunimara’s elder gentlemen, a man who has seen his country buckle under the weight of western influence. He and Winstead share a scene together that instantly elevates the film from dumb, well-directed fun to something more astutely melancholy and thoughtful about the state of Japan and America’s place in the world. By the time a bullet-riddled climax and a samurai sword-laden showdown come to pass, Kate has proven itself to be the biggest surprise of the year. By eschewing chintzy CGI, Nicholas avoids what brought down Shang Chi in its third act, and by casting well and allowing an ineffable sadness to swell, he also avoids the pointlessness that permeated Snake Eyes. He’s come a long way from Huntsman: Winter’s War, of all things, and produced to date what is the best action film of the year.