Note: This review contains spoilers.
Dripping in electric pinks, greens, and blues, Kate drops us into an aesthetically pleasing, neon-drenched, grim Tokyo underworld. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, channeling her best Ellen Ripley) plays the title character, a stoic, bitter operative who works under the enigmatic but charming V (Woody Harrelson), frequently targeting the Japanese crime syndicate, the Yakuza. When Kate is poisoned with radiation on what is meant to be her final job, she has 24 hours to track down who did it and exact revenge, with the help of Ani (Miku Matineau), the daughter of one of Kate’s previous victims.
This narrative isn’t new—flicks like Lucy, Upgrade, and even John Wick come to mind. I wanted to love Kate. I can’t get enough of bloody, pulpy, grindhouse-type stories where a character seeks revenge—particularly when they feature such a stunning background as futuristic Tokyo—but Kate falls flat in execution, originality, and attention to detail.
One of my biggest gripes with Kate is the whiteness of it. While Winstead is a talented actress and was able to just about sell her character to be believable, I would have much preferred a Japanese actress in the leading role. We get no real reason as to why Kate is white, why she is an American, or why she is working in Tokyo to kill Yakuza clans. We don’t even get the name of the agency she works for, nor how she got to be Japan-based.
To top it off, Kate is a white woman who saves the life of Ani, the niece of an oyabun of the Yakuza, and takes her under her wing. There’s also a scene in which Kate and Ani force a Yakuza member to speak English at gunpoint. Why? Ani and Kate can both speak Japanese—there was no reason for this.
Scenes like this, and the film’s overall tone, fit the white savior/Americentrism trope a little too snugly. I found myself asking throughout the film, why didn’t they cast a Japanese actress for the lead role? What was the need to have a white woman taking out all these Japanese characters?
The overarching narrative and characters of Kate leave much to be desired. We don’t really get to know Kate at all—she’s merely a character cut-out of every “betrayed assassin” with little to no emotion. V’s betrayal of the titular operative is explained poorly and with not enough reason, which hinders the emotion that is meant to be felt when Kate finds out about his betrayal. Additionally, Kate’s sudden alliance with the Yakuza—despite spending her entire career taking them out—was unrealistic. The ending of the film was rushed, even taking into consideration the 24-hour window Kate has left to live.
Kate does, however, have some notable qualities in its action sequences and Japanese cast, which both serve as the film’s strongest attributes.
The fight sequences are unforgiving and the violence is graphic, with gore splattering across shoji doors and switchblades gliding easily into characters’ faces like putty. They’re eye-catching and hard-hitting, with a gusto that should have flowed throughout the rest of the film.
Kate‘s Japanese cast features some incredible talent, such as Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer) and Jun Kunimura (Audition). The katana-driven fight sequence between their characters was swift, bloody, brooding, and positively atmospheric. I just wish Troyan had built up more tension between them and had prolonged the scene instead of switching to the “tension” between Winstead and Harrelson, which did not feel authentic.
While Kate offered some badass, gore-slick fight sequences and stunning Japanese scenery, it wasn’t enough to hold together what could have been an emotional, character-driven film.
dir. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Kate premieres on on Netflix on Friday, September 10th.