Editor’s Note: There is a scene that takes place in a concert venue that contains strobing lights, which may be of some concern to those with photosensitivity. For those sensitive to motion sickness & motion-related illnesses, the camera uses exaggerated movements during the action scenes.
Ever since the original John Wick was released in 2014, studios have been on the search for their version of the neo-noir action thriller centering around a one-person killing machine with highly stylized action sequences. There’s the Denzel Washington vehicle, The Equalizer films (that’s now a Queen Latifah show for some reason?), the Charlize Theron-led Atomic Blonde (which co-creator of John Wick even directed!), The Villainess, Extraction (which is on Netflix!), Upgrade, The Accountant, and of course, this year’s Nobody, to name a few. So what does the latest Netflix action film bring to the table?
For starters, Kate is an action film that features Mary Elizabeth Winstead (a rare lead role for the actress!) as the titular female assassin (which is even rarer!). Then, the film comes up with a clear deadline as we find out she has been poisoned and only has 24 hours to find her soon-to-be killer. Another wrinkle is that this manhunt takes place amongst the streets of Tokyo. Oh, and she enlists the help of the young daughter of a target she assassinated just ten months earlier. That’s a lot of new stuff into what could have been a gender-swapped John Wick film. Are these new injections into an old formula something that audiences will connect with, or are the injections too much to keep track of?
The short version is: The new injections are unnecessary, but it also doesn’t go far enough.
The primary reason as to why the new injections to the formula don’t work is the direction. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan has a background in visual effects on films like The Weather Man and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which helps with that department and the cinematography, but when it comes to his directing work, his last job was the pre-sequel to the critically-panned Snow White and the Huntsman, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, which itself was critically panned. Kate feels almost directionless, even though the film has a very clear goal and destination. Oftentimes, I wanted to grab my phone and scroll Twitter than watching the film. The last time I got that feeling was when I watched He’s All That, and I rated that film .5 stars on Letterboxd, which is never a good sign for a film I was genuinely excited about. I appreciate that Hollywood gave Nicolas-Troyan a second chance, but I can’t help but wonder how much better Kate would have been with a more established action director.
The script is not much better. Somehow, even though the entire film has the simple goal of getting Kate to the person who poisoned her, those aren’t the scenes that kept me engaged with the film. By the end of the first act, I was bored, to put it lightly. The plot-driven scenes feel confusing, at best. I never got a good grip on why Kate was doing what she was doing, why she was doing it, and it only gets worse when the second act of the film concludes. Avoiding spoilers, the film could end at the one-hour mark, and I would’ve been fine. The thirty-plus minutes that make up the film’s final act are utterly nonsensical in relation to the rest of the film. It’s a third act that exists only to serve a twist that, again, I won’t spoil, but you’ll know it when you see it (if you even watch the film). On top of that, the dialogue feels like it thinks it’s smarter than it is and a breakneck pace to boot. Another year or two in the cooker, and this could’ve been something that I’d at least throw on just to relive some of the big plot moments.
Another major pain point is the casting. I’m glad that Hollywood took a chance to give Elizabeth Winstead her first lead role, but the casting feels like a vast mismatch for the type of action film Kate is trying to be. I get the feeling that instead of casting American actors Woody Harrelson and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the “protagonist” roles completely ruins the clear influence of Japanese kung fu films on this film and immediately places the viewer in a place where they’re suspicious of everything they see. If the casting director had gone for a completely Japanese cast, these concerns would be null and void. Additionally, the atmosphere of the film would click immediately for most viewers, rather than requiring them to be in a constant state of disbelief for the hour and forty-seven-minute runtime.
Thankfully, we finally get some good fucking food in the cinematography department. The camera movement acts as its own character, driving the action-heavy scenes with swift movements that feel like they were ripped out of a video game (in fact, there’s a car chase scene that feels like a Need for Speed: Underground sequel). If there’s a highlight of Kate, it’s a scene in a Tatami-style restaurant in which Kate goes on a killing spree, in which the cinematography gave me goosebumps. The contrast of the blood splayed across the white walls of the restaurant combined with the camera whipping around, circling Kate, all with over crank, suitable coverage for the action, and without shaky camera. It’s rare, and I appreciate Lyle Vincent’s devotion to using the camera to keep the viewer engaged rather than resorting to shaking the camera around and calling it a day.
Another huge plus is that the stunt work on Kate is impeccable. Jonathan Eusebio gives each stunt a fluidity and reasonability that I never wondered if the actors were actually on set doing these stunts or if it was a CG model (with the exception of the aforementioned car chase scene, which is understandable). Each hit lands and makes an impact that conventional Hollywood productions often eschew due to production deadlines or convenience. It’s rare and vastly appreciated.
If you’re simply in the mood for a new action film to watch, I don’t imagine that you’d be disappointed in Kate. However, if you require a compelling story and diligent craftwork to go along with your action film of choice this weekend, you can do a lot better than Kate. Instead, go watch John Wick: Chapter 2, any of the Mission: Impossible films (my favorite is Mission: Impossible – Fallout), Brawl in Cell Block 99, Hardcore Henry (yes, I unabashedly love that film), or the upcoming Nicolas Cage Prisoners of the Ghostland (review coming a week from now), which knows how wacky the premise is and runs with it.
Until next time!