Review: 'Kate' is Fun, But Hopelessly Confused

by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 10, 2021

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 'Kate'
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 'Kate'  (Source:Netflix)

There's a saying that I've long gravitated to: A camel is a horse designed by committee. Often attributed to Sir Alec Issigonis, a British car designer who famously designed the Mini, the quote highlights the pitfalls of group work. In an attempt to please everyone, you're inevitably left with something that barely resembles the original goal. "Kate" is a fun and hopelessly confused camel.

Kate is an assassin. Kate is very good at her job. Kat,e is ready to retire. But when you work in such a dangerous field, not everything goes as planned. As Kate is prepping for her final mission, she is secretly poisoned. Now with only 24 hours left to live, she scours all of Tokyo to find and punish the people involved.

"Kate" is a Mad Libs of recent action tropes. But you were probably expecting that, since the trailers readily advertised that this was produced by the same people that brought us "John Wick" and "Atomic Blonde." That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for much of the film's runtime it ends up feeling like modern day "Atomic Blonde," only set in Japan.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead's titular Kate is cold, hard, and brutal (not too dissimilar from "Blonde's" Lorraine). Winstead is fine in the role, even if it feels designed to withhold her intrinsic charisma. This is becoming something of a trend for Winstead, after a very similar performance as Huntress in "Birds of Prey." It's frustrating, as Winstead the actress is far more interesting than Winstead the action star. Perhaps it's because she connects most effectively in small moments, the kind that are tough to find when they have been buried in action choreography and CGI blood spray.

The story of "Kate" begins very simply, but isn't content to remain that way. Umair Aleem's screenplay wraps around itself, trying to surprise the audience with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. Even acting juggernauts like Woody Harrelson struggle to spew exposition in a manner that doesn't feel forced. It's unfortunate, as Cedric Nicolas-Troyan's direction shows great promise, especially in the film's front half. Several of the film's early action set pieces, including a neon soaked car chase that feels nearly animated in its level of kinetic energy, are fresh and heart-pounding. But as the film gets bogged down with story, even the action itself starts to suffer.

"Kate" struggles to be something special because it seems designed to deny itself what it does best. It'd be like taking "Crank" (another clear influence on "Kate"), stripping out the most ridiculous beats, tearing out the heart, and cramming it into a mold for which it was never intended. Neither Aleem's script or Nicolas-Troyan's direction are confident enough to just be themselves. Instead they scramble, shoving together story points and visual styles like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit. You've seen this done before, and you've seen this done better.

None of this is to say that you can't find something to enjoy in "Kate." With so many films featuring action scenes in complete darkness, and with an incomprehensible number of edits, "Kate" stands as a shining exception. The action is riveting, intense, and you can actually follow what's happening. A lot of that credit goes to cinematographer Lyle Vincent, who manages to make lemonade out of onions.

When "Kate" gets out of its own way and relishes its skills, it's a stylish, hyper violent thrill ride bathed in neon lights, coated in blood, and so exhilarating that you'll have to fight the urge to shout words of encouragement at the screen. But as soon as it attempts to be like something you've seen before, it becomes just another camel.

"Kate" streams on Netflix starting September 10.