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A bloodied, grubby Mary Elizabeth Winstead brandishes two guns at the camera in Kate Photo: Jasin Boland/Netflix

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a legit action star wasted by Netflix’s Kate

2021’s run of ‘lady-killers’ action movies continues with yet another female assassin

Whoever makes the next Alien sequel or spinoff should consider casting Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the successor of Sigourney Weaver’s character, Ellen Ripley. Since her breakthrough in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Winstead has grown into a self-assured actress whose physical confidence, sardonic line deliveries, and shaggy chopped ’do evoke Weaver’s sci-fi icon. Whether she plays Amanda Ripley, Ellen’s canonical daughter, or a clone of Ellen herself (a narrative possibility imagined by 1997’s Joss Whedon-written Alien Resurrection), Winstead should be unleashed against the Weyland-Yutani Corporation so everyone can watch the sparks fly. Maybe taking on that kind of iconic role could keep Winstead from tiresome fare like Netflix’s action movie Kate.

Another unimaginative woman-led action flick written and directed by men who telegraph their twists and lean on flashbacks instead of bothering to write character development, Kate mistakes “women can kill just as well as men!” for some sort of new idea. It isn’t — not for Netflix, immediately following Gunpowder Milkshake, and not for other studios, with The Protégé and Jolt piling up on each other’s stiletto-clad footsteps over the past few months. The film’s depiction of Japanese culture as insularly obsessed with “honor” and dismissive of outsiders isn’t particularly fresh, either. And Western fetishization of the yakuza as businessmen with samurai swords is getting pretty uninspired as well.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in sunglasses and a bloody Totoro shirt, in Netflix’s Kate Photo: Netflix

Winstead and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, who previously worked together on Birds of Prey, deserve better than this. You could at least watch Kate for the fight scenes alone and be somewhat satisfied. Over Birds of Prey, Gemini Man, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, Winstead has developed a physical confidence as a performer that girds her work as Kate’s titular assassin. She is poised when she’s aiming a sniper rifle, and controlled when she’s smashing a gun into someone’s face after running out of bullets. With a dagger or a broken glass bottle, her movements are quick, practically churning, as she stabs again and again and again. And Eusebio is skillful at coordinating the fluid one-against-many action scenes that have become his preferred style over the course of projects from the John Wick franchise to The Fate of the Furious, Haywire, and Nikita.

That approach benefits Kate, which positions its protagonist as one woman standing against waves and waves of yakuza members. Kate shoves men’s faces into hibachi grills, elevates and holds herself between buildings so she can shoot downward at her pursuers, and slices off fingers before stabbing men in their mouths. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent flips the camera over to disorient the audience with upside-down fight scenes. He composes close-ups of blood splattering across shoji screens, and relishes Winstead in slow motion, twirling her way through the neon-green laser lights of rifle scopes. The violence isn’t quite ultra, but at least it adds some excitement to the otherwise lackluster script.

Winstead stars as an assassin who hasn’t “missed once in 12 years.” She murders people at the behest of Varrick (Woody Harrelson), her handler/boss/father figure. Varrick tells her who to kill, and she does it without asking any questions. (It’s unclear whether Varrick works for a larger government entity, or runs an entire assassination operation by himself.) That imbalanced relationship has worked since Varrick adopted her as a child. (This may sound remarkably similar to the setup of The Protégé, because it is — Maggie Q and Samuel L. Jackson have the same dynamic in that film.)

Kate’s latest targets are high up in a Japanese crime family, but she thinks something about the job doesn’t feel right. First, she’s ordered to kill someone with his teenage daughter there — a major breach of protocol. Then, 10 months later, she’s called on to kill the big boss, Kijima (Jun Kunimura) — and her body seems to rebel against her actions. Composer Nathan Barr pipes in skipping, cacophonic electronic music to indicate that Kate’s body is malfunctioning, while editors Sandra Montiel and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir fracture Kate’s vision with askew angles and jarring flashbacks. Kate misses the shot, and when she seeks medical attention for the problem, she’s diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome, which will kill her within a day. So she dedicates her final 24 hours to hunting down Kijima, and decides to use Kijima’s teenage niece Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) as leverage.

Where Kate then goes is also where Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake went. Yet again, a stone-cold killer who happens to be a woman is given a tragic backstory, saddled with a child she sees as a younger version of herself, and tees off against an array of male characters who primarily see female characters as their subordinates, which is meant to be ironic, since they’re being killed by a woman. That’s the expected narrative, and Kate doesn’t deviate from it. Umair Aleem’s script has Kate dream of leaving the killing game for a suburban life with a family, then has her soften toward Ani because of their shared orphan status and mutual fondness for Boom Boom Lemon Japanese soda. That’s a whiplash-inducing motivation shift for a character who until then has murdered strangers for more than a decade with zero second thoughts.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead channels her inner Ripley as Miku Patricia Martineau stands by in Netflix’s Kate Photo: Jasin Boland/Netflix

Ani has her own whiplash evolution, going from telling Kate, “Fuck you, cancer bitch,” to “You’re so cool” within the span of about 20 minutes of narrative time. Martineau deserves credit for the zeal with which she chomps into this deeply try-hard dialogue. But there isn’t much of a genuine feminine touch, nor a believable human-behavior touch, in the conceptualization of these characters. What did Kate want to do with her life before Varrick called the shots? Does she have friends? Has she ever been in a relationship, or are one-night stands (as she has with a character played by Michiel Huisman) a self-imposed rule? Does Ani’s biracial status ostracize her at school? Has growing up in the yakuza meant she’s never had a female role model? Would she ever consider leaving Japan? Who are these characters, beyond their obligatory plot-pushing functions?

Neither Kate nor Ani ends up fully three-dimensional, and to be fair, such depth could arguably be superfluous to the thrilling impact of Winstead’s initial ass-kicking scenes. But when the second half of the film shifts into focusing on Kate and Ani’s affection for and allegiance to each other, that move doesn’t feel justified, because they’re so superficial. Unless the filmmakers want viewers to believe that Kate and Ani primarily become tethered by virtue of being “gaijin” foreigners? As a uniting factor, it’s sparse, but as another component of the film’s “Japan hates white people” clichés, it tracks.

Nevertheless, Martineau’s high-energy Ani contrasts well with Winstead’s deadpan Kate, and their commitment is the key to briefly elevating the film from all the limitations that bog it down. The blowhard villains, who spout on and on about honor, are covered with tattooed Japanese script, wield samurai swords and machine guns, and call outsiders “monsters” are wrapped in self-serious grandiosity. Kate puffs up those baddies to such a degree that the facile girl-power moments it provides Kate and Ani aren’t an effective counter. “I’m not looking away anymore,” Kate dramatically says in the film’s third act as a way to describe how the past 24 hours have changed her. But aside from its fight scenes, Kate isn’t much worth looking at, either.

Kate premieres on Netflix on Sept. 10.