Kate review: Mary Elizabeth Winstead leads Netflix's red-meat female assassin thriller
Kate (2021 movie)
The world is full of yoga teachers and paralegals and mechanical engineers. It is less full, presumably, of female assassins. (If you've ever met one you either didn't know it, or you're dead.) And yet there has never been more of them in movies — cool-eyed executioners who slash and blast and burn their way across the screen, grinding the notion of a weaker sex beneath their boot heels and snuffing out lives like half-smoked cigarettes.
As the titular star of Kate (out Friday on Netflix), Fargo's Mary Elizabeth Winstead is exactly that kind of killer: a stoic Jane Wick working in tandem with her handler (a blunt, cheerful Woody Harrelson) to take out nefarious players in the Japanese underworld. She doesn't ask questions and she doesn't miss, but executing a man in front of his traumatized teenage daughter (Miku Martineau) does give her pause. And when a follow-up job goes wobbly she discovers that she's been poisoned, fatally. (This would all be a spoiler if it weren't handled so economically in the first 15 minutes.) That leaves approximately 24 hours to settle her business — and her business being what it is, there will be blood.
It's a feat that director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Huntsman: Winter's War) manages to turn the movie's hoary One Last Job scenario into a thriller as lizard-brain satisfying as it is; his lens zips and dips across Tokyo, the city's bright neon chaos a kinetic backdrop to a series of increasingly baroque kills. (At one point, a murder also casually becomes a haircut.) Subtle it's not: Kate is red-meat storytelling, all broad outlines and crunched bones. But there's a visual wit and visceral energy to it that other recent efforts (the pop-feminist comic-book gloss Gunpowder Milkshake, also on Netflix, and Amazon Prime's spectacularly silly Jolt, featuring a rampaging Kate Beckinsale) struggle to find.
Aside from a brief interlude at a hotel bar (with The Flight Attendant's Michiel Huisman) and a few twitchy impulses of maternal feeling, Winstead's Kate is too tough, and then too far gone, to really develop much of a relationship with the audience aside from a few wry, biting one-liners; she's come to kill, or die trying. But the scattered bits that do come through are a reminder that the genre's best — Kill Bill and the original French La Femme Nikita; the snappy 1996 Geena Davis vehicle The Long Kiss Goodnight and 2014's great, ludicrous Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson — root their adrenalized set pieces in protagonists who actually seem to have inner lives, no matter how extreme. It's no mystery why we love to watch these women on screen: They're clever, ruthless, and ferociously capable in ways that the rest of us will never be, superheroes without the capes and moral obligations. And they don't need any man's permission to land. Grade: B