There appears to be a recent fixation with the concept of women being powerful and invincible killers, with the screenplays being exclusively authored by men. In this dream, these femme Fatales would go to any length to get revenge on their oppressor, gradually losing their humanity as they near their goal. The narrative of Kate, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the main character, is just that: an ideal fantasy of a woman with little time to wreak retribution on those who poisoned her. With less than 24 hours to live, Kate must fight her quickly deteriorating body and the Yakuza to find the man she believes is responsible for her plight.
The film had all the elements of a terrific, sleek, action-packed thriller, with Winstead at the helm, who had recently finished DC’s Birds of Prey at the time. Kate can be the next Atomic Blonde, but it falls far short due to a lack of creativity and terrible Asian stereotypes.
Kate finds who poisoned her with little time remaining: Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the leader of a Yakuza clan whose brother Kate had killed a few months before. Kate, enraged, chases every clue to find him. After murdering his soldiers, Kate is informed she can track down Kijima through his adolescent niece Ani (Miku Martineau). Kate then kidnaps the adolescent and wants access to her uncle, which Ani, unfortunately, cannot grant.
The most irritating aspect of Kate and Ani’s newfound connection is that it feels like the white savior cliché. Following Kate’s rescue of Ani from competing gangs, the youngster becomes a fangirl for the angry killer and follows her around as her accomplice. Ani’s portrayal appears to be more of a cute anime stereotype than a terrified adolescent. True, there were significant conditions that led to this turn, but it was still uncalled for. It was disconcerting to see Ani, a Japanese-born woman, encourage everyone to speak English to her fellow Japanese people when Japanese is preferred over English.
The film’s boring and predictable narrative might be forgiven if there was some exciting action. Still, the combat sequences are hurried and leave Kate appearing more like the Terminator than a real human being whose body is progressively shutting down. Not to mention, watching a tenacious white woman brutally murder multiple Asian men during the first two acts was extremely upsetting, especially given that the Asian community is still reeling from mass anti-Asian hate crimes. The clashes between Kate and the Yakuza are incredibly frightening for Asian viewers, notably during a scene where Kate storms into a room and shoots one of the guys in the head. She does the job as he is dying without batting an eye.
Kate is shown wishing to leave the assassin profession to live a regular life and perhaps have a family. All of that is taken away from her as a result of the poisoning. It makes sense for her to seek retribution for the future she no longer has. But, as she continues her homicidal spree, her humanity is eroded for her to become this vicious fighting machine, or, as the film would have you think, “a real badass.”
If there was some exciting action, the film’s formulaic narrative might be forgiven.
Despite the film’s weak combat sequences and uninteresting characters, the third act becomes more fascinating as we know the Yakuza’s leader, Kijima. As the sad commander, Kunimura exudes delicate benignity and controls nearly every scene with a single glance. The third act is acceptable due to this character, and spectators may begin to sympathize with Kate. Unfortunately, this is too late for anyone to be concerned about what happens to her.
Woody Harrelson, who plays Varick, Kate’s sadistic one-dimensional manager who had trained her into becoming an assassin since she was a child, is the film’s most wasted performer. Harrelson seemed entirely out of place and lacked chemistry with Winstead’s austere role. It’s challenging to imagine Varick raised Kate as his child, as all of their encounters felt more like uncomfortable workplace small chat than a parental bond.
There’s much to be said about a film with Japan as a background yet has a weary usage of the Yakuza. Kate attempts to include several notable Japanese pop culture figures in the tale, including the rock band BAND-MAID and a short cameo by MIYAVI, who appears to have a fascinating history but is never fully explored. The usage of Japanese culture is solely for optics and the dream of what foreigners think to be their way of life.
Kate is predictable, somewhat triggering, and dull. It is filled with uninspiring action sequences and follows the same formula as this summer’s other bland female empowerment films (also written by men) — Gunpowder Milkshake and The Protégé. The typical “badass” assassin seeks revenge against the men who threaten her way of life.
Kate tries to build an original femme fatale by making her moribund with limited time to identify the guy who killed her. Unfortunately, the plot falls flat due to tired cliches and shaky action scenes. A few characters are more intriguing than the protagonist at moments, but they are never fully developed beyond their appearance or until the last act. The film desperately wants us to care about the title character, but it fails to do so.