Review: 'Kate' - Killer Queen
Some women you should never cross, especially when they're armed. Like Kate, the desperate and dangerous protagonist played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the new movie bearing her character's flat, un-resonant name. Kate lives and kills in Tokyo, where the nights are black, the lighting's blue and tattooed yakuza killers move through the shadows: She's a freelance assassin who takes her assignments from Varrick (Woody Harrelson), the man who started grooming her for the hit-girl trade when she was just a kid.
Have we been here before? Many times. Where to begin? Maybe with Luc Besson's '90s girl-assassin hits "La Femme Nikita" (1990), about a teen junkie turned killer for a sinister government agency, and "Leon: The Professional" (1994), which had Natalie Portman, in her first film role, playing a 12-year-old honing her own killer instincts. In the 2011 "Hanna," Saoirse Ronan was a 15-year-old terminator trained in the murderous arts by her CIA-agent father. And in "Kick-Ass" (2010), the movie that cranked up the level of cartoon violence in these sorts of films to a hilarious new level, Chloe Grace Moretz teamed up with her on-screen dad, Nicolas Cage, to form a remorseless urban crime-fighting team.
One of the best female assassins of recent years was Lorraine Broughton, Charlize Theron's thug-whomping MI6 spy in the 2017 Cold War thriller "Atomic Blonde" -- not a perfect movie, but one with an instructive connection to "Kate." David Leitch, the stunt specialist who directed "Atomic Blonde" (and also worked on the "John Wick" and "Matrix" movies), was a producer on "Kate," and you can feel his influence -- the bullet cascades and acrobatic batterings in both films come at us virtually nonstop. In fact, "Kate" might have been the sequel that "Atomic Blonde" still deserves, except for a couple of things. First, French director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, an effects specialist making his second feature, doesn't always capture the action at peak frenzy. And second, because a lot of people have maintained an affectionate regard for Mary Elizabeth Winstead over the years after such films as "Sky High" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," it's a little difficult to accept her as a gun-packing hard-ass. She gives it her best shot, but she just seems too sweet to truly intimidate anybody.
There's also the story, which seems to have been lifted whole from a 70-year-old film noir. As the movie opens, we see Kate up on a rooftop with a rifle, taking aim at a mob boss exiting a limo down below. Just as she's about to pull the trigger, she notices there's a little girl with the guy -- his daughter, it turns out. Kate has a strict rule about never killing children, so this kid's unexpected appearance throws her off. She bags the kingpin, but she's shaken, and afterward Varrick wonders what's wrong with her.
Kate is wondering this, too. And she thinks she knows the answer. Flashing back, we see her at a swank bar getting picked up by a stranger, a guy who buys her a drink and watches as she knocks it back. It subsequently turns out that she was dosed with radioactive polonium and she now has 14 hours to live. She suspects that a yakuza crime lord is behind her soon-to-be murder, and she determines to spend the waning hours of her life finding and killing him.
This is basically the plot of the 1950 crime film "D.O.A.," which starred Edmund O'Brien as a man who's been poisoned and has no idea by whom or why. He determines to find the answers to those questions in the few days he has left to live. Kate's identical quest has a tighter timetable, so she'll need some help. To this end, she abducts the teenage girl whose father she had earlier blown away. The kid's name is Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), and while she and Kate naturally have a contentious relationship at first, it soon evolves into familiar tough-girl banter. (At one unfortunate point, Ani tells Kate she's "a total killer babe," like we couldn't see that.)
The action is naturally unsparing -- the usual bottle-bashed faces and smashed knees, with one refreshing departure: a goon's face rolled around in a glowing charcoal brazier. But nonstop mayhem can't really carry these sorts of movies anymore -- even the "John Wick" films may have played out that particular string. A little wit in the dialogue, a few glints of characterization -- more is now required. Unfortunately, "Kate" wasn't in line the day those things were handed out.
Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate, Inc.