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I love a big, dumb action movie as much as the next person. Since the release of John Wick, stylish R-Rated action movies have become the new fad in film. I’m not complaining, though. While there have been some dud’s that have come out, there have also been a number of surprisingly good alternate versions. The first that comes to mind is Atomic Blonde, the Cold War-era spy film starring Charlize Theron. The film Kate borrows heavily from both, sometimes to its detriment, but the lead performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead salvages what could have been a purely paint-by-numbers action film.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the movie.
The film is set entirely in Japan during the modern day. Kate, the titular assassin is portrayed with fierceness by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. This really is Winstead’s film and there is a surprising amount of depth she brings to the character, making her less a one-note killer. Woody Harrelson co-stars as Varrick, Kate’s handler and only friend. We learn precious little about Kate’s history, except through flashback sequences. What we do learn is that Kate suffered a family tragedy involving her parents being murdered. Varrick takes the child Kate under his wing, training her to become an assassin.
Based on the opening sequence, she is quite good at her job. The fight scenes are what I’ve come to expect from these types of action movies in the wake of John Wick: stylish, bloody, and entertaining. The opening of the film is Kate on a mission to kill a man named Jojima. A complication occurs when Jojima’s daughter Ani is also at the scene. Kate is one of those principled assassins that doesn’t target kids. Ani survives but has to watch her father be gunned down in front of her. The guilt of this event stays with Kate throughout the film, particularly once Ani comes back into her life.
Ten months later, Kate is poisoned with polonium-204, a deadly radioactive substance. Given little more than a day to live, Kate sets out to find out who poisoned her. She’s sent after Kojima, the brother of the man she murdered at the beginning of the movie. A trained assassin with nothing to lose is a dangerous individual, as the movie goes to great lengths to show us. Each of the fight scenes are choreographed expertly and all of them leave Kate worse for wear. When she tracks down Ani, she realizes who the young girl is and decides to use her as bait to lure out Kojima.
It’s at this point in the story we are introduced to Renji, played with smarmy glee by Tadanobu Asano (probably most familiar as Hogun from the Thor films). It’s quickly revealed that Renji has his own plans, namely taking over the Yakuza family run by Kojima. Kate’s bloody bath to reach Kojima leads to a quiet confrontation between the Yakuza boss and herself. Jun Kunimura portrays Kojima with an honorable world-weariness in his brief scenes. He resigns himself to death at the hands of Kate, but not before revealing to her that Varrick has been in league with Renji the entire time. The missions Kate has been on, including the killing of Jojima, were all part of Renji and Varrick’s plan to take over the Yakuza family.
I’d be lying if I said the action sequences aren’t among my favorites of the film but the quiet scenes between Kate and Ani are truly where the film shines. Winstead and Miku Martineau play well off each other, with the haggard and cynical Kate bouncing off the bubbly teen energy of Ani. In the short time they’re together, they bond over their shared lack of a place in the world, which makes the reveal to Ani of Kate’s complicity in her father’s death the heartbreaking turn it needs to be.
The final sequence where Kate and Kojima (backed by a hit squad) lay siege to the building where Varrick and Renji are holed up is well done but it definitely feels too similar to other films in this genre. If there was one criticism (and its only a half-hearted one at that) is that the film does feel too derivative of the films that precede it. The lighting and camera work feel very much like the neon-soaked sequences in John Wick 2. It also doesn’t help that Netflix released a similar movie earlier this year titled Gunpowder Milkshake. With that being said, it’s definitely an enjoyable film and one I would encourage readers to watch.