It seems like only a few days ago that I was reviewing a movie about a female assassin who dreams of a normal life but is bound to her violent (and apparently popular with moviegoers) profession. Of course it came packaged with a traumatic backstory, a mentor / father figure, and a mission of vengeance ending in a bloodstained showdown where the assassin’s occupational artistry is on full display.
The latest to join the crowded field is “Kate”, a new Netflix Original and the second movie helmed by French filmmaker Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, an Oscar-nominated visual effects artist who turned to directing in 2016 with the shaky “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”. To his credit, Nicolas-Troyan brings splashes of style and plenty of grit to “Kate”. But in the end it’s nothing we haven’t seen several times before.
You could say that the sometimes vicious and often ultra-violent “Kate” has a late 1970s grindhouse appeal (for those who find grindhouse films appealing). I admit to having a nostalgic soft spot for a select few of those movies although only in measured doses. Looked at a certain way, “Kate” could have melded right into a quadruple feature at the old Cameo Theater in Los Angeles or had its four-letter name wedged onto a cramped 42nd Street marquee in New York City.
But to be fair, ”Kate” isn’t a trashy film and it certainly doesn’t look cheap (well, there is that one car chase sequence). Yet with bursts of gnarly brutality and an almost primitive in-your-face energy, the movie could rightfully bear the grindhouse label. In fact, that propulsive energy and a fun leading turn by Mary Elizabeth Winstead is what keeps “Kate” afloat. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of this sudden wave of assassin movies has caught up to them, and “Kate” simply doesn’t have enough ideas of its own.
The story opens in Osaka, Japan with a eponymous killer-for-hire (Winstead) all set to take out a powerful Yakuza clan leader. But just as Kate is about to pull the trigger, out walks the target’s young daughter. Kate hesitates but is instructed by the voice in her earpiece to take the shot. She reluctantly does, killing the gangster and leaving the distraught and blood-splattered little girl clinging to her father’s corpse.
Ten months pass and Kate is still tormented by what happened in Osaka. So much so that she’s ready to hang up her 9mms and call it a career. “I want a life,” she tells her long-time handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson), “a real regular life.” But Varrick is skeptical. “Two trips to Wal-Mart and you’ll be back”, he quips in that unmistakable Harrelson Southern drawl. Still Kate is determined to move on, but only after finishing that proverbial ‘one final mission’.
But if there is anything these movies have taught us it’s that life as an assassin isn’t something you can just get up and walk away from. And like so many of the other predictable and trope-filled films, “Kate” follows a well-worn formula with only a couple of original touches. Here her last job leads to her being poisoned and only given 24 hours to live. Instead of giving up, she sets out to even the score before her clock runs out. And wouldn’t you know it, she finds an unlikely ally in a potty-mouthed young girl named Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) – the same little girl who watched her father gunned down in the opening scene.
The rest of the movie runs us from one action scene to the next, sprinkling in a little character development along the way. The stylishly made fight sequences can be exhilarating with Winstead showing off some impressive action star chops. But the copious amount of bloodletting via face punches, throat-slices and point-blank headshots can only carry so much of the load and even they begin to feel old hat.
While I loved seeing Mary Elizabeth Winstead handed a well-deserved starring role, it’s not a particularly weighty one. Yet she gives it everything she’s got, even adding texture to a fairly conventional character type. Harrelson is solidly Harrelson, Kunimura brings welcomed gravitas and Martineau adds a spirited kick. But the all-too-familiar story leaves nothing for the imagination. Sure it’s serviceable one-and-done entertainment. But those hoping for a fresh and meatier diversion might want to add something else to their Netflix queue.