This spring, Universal and 87North released Nobody, a charming action-thriller about a retired assassin getting back into the game, advertised as being “From the Producers of John Wick.” This turned out not to be an isolated incident, as three more films have been released in the months since that have unambiguously sought out that John Wick heat. There was the garish and overwrought Gunpowder Milkshake, which tried to create its own comic book-style assassin underworld a la The Continental. The Maggie Q vehicle The Protégé (whose poster proudly proclaimed “From the studio that brought you John Wick”) was a step up, but still underwhelming. Now, we come to the end of the line, to the last major Hollywood release of the year to revolve around a hired killer out for revenge. This has turned out to be a round-trip, as we arrive back at 87North, whose new feature Kate premiered on Netflix last Friday. For those who have been on this journey with me, I have good news — Kate is the closest any of these films have come to recapturing the tone, excitement, and tightly-choreographed action that made John Wick such a sensation.
[Violin Sting from “Toxic”]
Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Birds of Prey) has been an assassin since she was a young girl, learning under the tutelage of her handler/father figure Varrick (Woody Harrelson, in a role perfectly suited for his established persona). Now in her thirties, she’s got it down to a science. She doesn’t get involved in the business end of the killing game — she’s given a weapon, a place to be, and a brief window to kill her unnamed target. But when a contract requires her to kill a gangster in front of his daughter, breaking her professional code, Kate decides that her next mission will be her last.
Her final contract takes her to Tokyo, where she’s been sent to kill yakuza boss Kijima (prolific Japanese actor Jun Kunimura). Moments before she’s about to fire the shot that will end her career, Kate becomes suddenly, violently ill. Someone has dosed her with Polonium-204, giving her acute radiation sickness. There is no cure, and she’ll be dead within 24 hours. Kate resolves to use her last day on Earth to fulfill her final contract and exact revenge for her own murder. But circumstance has one more twist for her — her guide through the Tokyo underworld is Ani (introducing Miku Martineau), the very child whose father Kate murdered ten months earlier. The story goes to predictable places from there, but, speaking for myself, I was having far too much fun to care.
Kate is a product of 87North, the new studio founded by producers David Leitch and Kelly McCormick as an offshoot of 87Eleven Action Design, the stunt training and coordination service founded by Leitch and fellow stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski in 2014. Leitch and Stahelski hit it big with John Wick, and now their action sensibilities (themselves greatly influenced by East Asian action cinema and Brazilian jiu jitsu) are now all over Hollywood, not just in films of this specific subgenre. It would, of course, be a huge mistake to imagine that John Wick was the first movie ever made to center on an assassin mowing through other assassins on a quest for revenge. Wick and the wave of similar films that have followed merely represent the latest paragraph in the century-long dialogue between gangster films from across the world. Kate is the part of the conversation in which the US (via French director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan) humbly acknowledges its Japanese influences.
I Wanna Be Kate
Kate helps us get to know the title character with remarkable efficiency. Her backstory is delivered in a tight, digestible 30-second montage, but even before this she’s an immediately lived-in character whose dimensions beyond the stock “stone-cold assassin” character are delivered mostly through performance rather than plot. Kate’s goals in the story are immediate and (necessarily) short-term, but there’s always something more going on behind her eyes. She has very little time to reflect on her life during her final day, and yet she’s always doing it, and the nature of her rage and remorse changes as she gets closer to the final confrontation.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Kate is an ideal action hero — effortlessly cool, startlingly vicious, and yet still vulnerable. Her mortality is at the forefront of the narrative, after all, as she attempts to shake off the ever-worsening symptoms of her disease and keep fighting. Like anyone carrying an 87North or 87Eleven production, Winstead trained extensively and performs the majority of her own on-screen violence. Grading on the curve of “actors doing stunts” (vs. “martial artists doing movies”), Winstead passes handily, even if the choreography itself sometimes suffers from the appearance that guys are waiting for their turn to get the stuffing beat out of them. Between Gemini Man, Birds of Prey, and Kate, Winstead seems to be ramping up the number and intensity of stunts with every role, a trend that could be exciting if she chooses to continue it.
Kate only seems more awesome through the eyes of Ani, who comes to idolize her after she saves her life from some traitorous gangsters. Ani is a demanding role for a first-time screen actor, calling for wit, sensitivity, and comic timing, but Miku Martineau ably handles the challenge. Ani, unaware that Kate is the instrument of her father’s demise, takes to her like John Connor to the T-101. She’s a foul-mouthed brat raised (and then abandoned) by the Yakuza, angry, defensive, and desperately lonely. Ani’s a girl who never knew her mother, Kate’s a dying woman who will never have the family she wants — it couldn’t be a better fit, except that Kate’s the reason Ani’s in this mess in the first place. Kate can’t help but see herself in Ani, who is about the same age that she was when she was orphaned and taken in by Varrick, but that familiarity is also frightening. As good as it feels to be admired and to have company in her final hours, the idea that Ani might follow in her footsteps only becomes more abhorrent the longer they spend together.
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Ghost of Tokyo
The premise of Kate shares some parallels with the Japanese ghost story Yotsuya Kaiden, in which a poisoned woman returns from the dead to exact revenge on her killers. The story is referenced by name in dialogue, and particularly astute viewers (or, say, viewers who have received a press packet from Netflix telling them about it) will notice a scene from the kabuki play being performed during the film. Calling Kate an adaptation of Yotsuya Kaiden would be an exaggeration, but acknowledging this influence is one of the ways that screenwriter Umair Aleem and director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan textually justify their film’s Tokyo setting beyond “Japan is cool, yakuza movies are dope.”
Of course, some of it is just that Japan is cool and yakuza movies are dope, because, yeah. Kate is awash in Tokyo’s distinctive atmosphere — or at least, a Westerner’s typical picture of it — and the film is scored diegetically with a variety of contemporary Japanese pop, rock, and hip-hop. (Hard rock band Band-Maid gets two songs on the soundtrack and a cameo appearance, and I haven’t stopped listening to them all week.) In addition to Jun Kunimura as the elusive oyabun, Tadanobu Asano (Hogun of the Thor movies) plays slimy underboss Renji and rock star Miyavi has a memorable turn as his boyfriend Jojima. There’s an excitement around its setting that inspired me to dig deeper into the film’s cast and influences rather than just soak in the cool neon lights. (Compare to The Protégé, a similar film set in Vietnam that has precious little interest in Vietnamese people.)
This is the fourth movie I’ve reviewed this year in which a woman reckons with a life spent killing at the behest of men. (Admittedly, once I saw this trend coming up I deliberately chose to collect them all, for science.) Within this very specific subset of films, as well as the overlapping trend of the “Wick Flick,” Kate is unquestionably my favorite. It’s stylish but not distractingly so, pointed but not preachy or condescending. Factoring in that I am very much the target audience, a viewer who goes out of his way to watch mid-budget action movies with flashy stuntwork and pink-and-turquoise color palettes, Kate just might sneak into my top ten films of the year.