Ostensibly, Netflix’s Kate is a brand-new movie based on an original concept. It’s not a remake or a reboot or an extension of a franchise; it’s not based on real events nor adapted from existing source materials.
But you’ve seen Kate before in other movies, which a cynic might suspect is exactly the idea: It feels like a title cooked up by the Netflix algorithm solely for the purpose of populating a Because You Watched row. (It is actually directed by a human, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.) It’s a little bit Extraction, a little bit Gunpowder Milkshake. Its Japanophile aesthetic aims for the grit of Blade Runner but falls closer to the empty gloss of Ghost in the Shell. Even the title character feels like an extension of star Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s other vengeful assassin character from Birds of Prey.
The Bottom Line
A faint copy of other, better movies.
All these familiar elements come together to form a movie that’s fitfully entertaining. If its bloody fistfights feel sluggish in comparison to the balletic grace of John Wick, well, there are worse action movies to crib from than John Wick. If its car chase feels too obviously CG even by the standards of a Fast & Furious movie, well, the vrooms and screeches still scratch a certain lizard-brain itch. But Kate wears its influences like borrowed clothes, never quite managing to develop a style or voice that feels wholly its own.
Umair Aleem’s script is so predictable that it’s possible to map out the entire final act based on the first two minutes of the movie and the plot synopsis. The spoiler-free version is this: Kate is an elite American assassin operating in Tokyo, who wakes up after a botched job to discover she’s been poisoned. She has roughly one day left to live, which she chooses to spend hunting down and enacting revenge on her killers — with unexpected assistance in the form of Ani (Miku Martineau), the teen daughter of one of Kate’s recent targets. (No points for guessing whether they’ll form an unconvincing emotional bond over their respective tragic backstories.)
Winstead’s no-nonsense aura serves her well as Kate, a strong, silent type whose only concession to whimsy is an obsession with a particular brand of soft drink. And she certainly looks the part of the badass heroine, at least in slo-mo. A late scene in which she struts into a lobby, sneering behind enormous sunglasses, a dangling cigarette and layers upon layers of blood and bruises, feels like ideal GIF fodder. But she’s handily upstaged the moment a character with an actual personality shows up — Jojima, a yakuza hitman played with rock star élan by real-life rock star Miyavi. First introduced in a silk Versace robe enjoying an at-home fish pedicure, Jojima makes Kate feel, for a moment, exactly as stylish and silly as it should be.
Alas, Jojima doesn’t stick around long. Without him, Kate is largely an endless onslaught of mostly interchangeable yakuza goons hurtling through stereotypically Japanese settings: a bathhouse, a kabuki performance, an outdoor market awash in neon. When a Japanese character complains that Westerners “gorge on cultures they don’t understand,” it’s hard not to wonder what movie he thinks he’s in, seeing as Kate ends up being yet another movie that sees the country as little more than an exotic backdrop for its white characters. (Even Ani, a local, is set apart from her Japanese crime family by virtue of being half-white.)
But such superficiality is par for the course for Kate. If the film has a defining moment, it’s not any of the cool parts where Kate shoots bad guys, or the sentimental parts where she’s bonding with her young charge, or the wannabe-meaningful parts where she’s receiving wisdom from an old Japanese gangster. (“Death is a beginning,” he remarks sagely.) It’s the instant when she pauses in the middle of an urgent mission to cut her own hair over a bathroom sink.
Kate’s not trying to disguise herself. Her hair’s not in the way. She’s not especially vain, as far as we know, and she’s definitely short on time. She doesn’t even look that different afterward. Nevertheless, she gives herself a trim, and fluffs it while studying herself in the mirror, because the self-administered haircut is cinematic shorthand for a woman taking charge of her own life, and that’s what Kate hopes to convey Kate is doing — never mind that the scene makes no sense in context. It’s the movie equivalent of copying someone else’s homework and forgetting to change the name on top. The film’s mimicry might be deft enough to pass muster here and there. But it doesn’t take an eagle eye to notice that Kate‘s got few ideas of its own.