When Birds of Prey came out in 2020, it was clearer than ever that Mary Elizabeth Winstead had the chops to be a stellar action star. Though she didn’t grace our screens near as much as the other leading ladies, she brought a level of bite and poise to her portrayal of Huntress, pairing deadpan humour with an propulsive, yet elegant physical style. Despite not having that much to do, she left an indelible mark – everyone wanted to see Winstead kick some more ass.
Kate, Netflix’s new action movie from director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, definitely gives Winstead more to do, but it doesn’t seem all that interested in what its star brings to the table. Winstead does her best to push through the film’s sanitised, neon veneer and shallow script — sometimes to great effect — but she can only do so much when the film clearly cares more about its shiny, polished aesthetic than a coherent story, satisfying action, or the raw, violent performance at its centre.
Winstead stars as the titular character, an assassin named Kate who has spent her entire life hunting down targets with the help of her mentor, Varrick (Woody Harrelson). After she’s poisoned and has 24 hours to live, Kate goes on a vengeful hunt through the streets of Tokyo, one that leads her to meet Ani (Miku Martineau), the teen daughter of one of her former targets, along the way.
Winstead spends the majority of Kate’s runtime charging through city streets covered in blood, vomit, and a myriad of other fluids as she hunts down her assailants, all while she is dying from radiation poisoning at an alarmingly fast rate. What works so well about Winstead’s performance is how visceral she is, pain baked into every move she makes. Before the aforementioned poisoning takes place, she’s smooth and slick as can be, but after? Her kicks are jerky, her breathing strained, every punch landed with Herculean effort. She stumbles, grunts, and roars her way through every fight, the sheer exertion it takes for her to run up a flight of stairs evident in every hobbled step.
Winstead brings a debilitating grit to Kate — and is the one gritty thing in this otherwise tediously dull movie. The neon glow of this version of Tokyo feels more like a perfectly posed Instagram photo than a gritty underground assassin drama. It’s possible that is what the filmmakers were going for — using the glowing pinks and oranges and glossy lights to enhance Winstead’s dirty face and desperation, but if anything, the sheen dilutes what’s interesting about her performance. Instead of using Tokyo to tell the audience something about the characters, or anything about the nature of this world, the city is wiped of all of its nuance or interest in favour of slick, vapid nothingness. There’s a moment where Kate steals a car — one that glows neon pink when she turns it on — and takes off into the night. But she doesn’t race through the streets as much as she glides, shrouded in a soft pink glow. This sequence is so polished, the car moving through the streets with an almost silken ease, that nothing about it feels real.
Kate’s biggest issue is that it seems more interested in that gossamer shimmer than what’s actually interesting about the film, namely the gravitas that Winstead brings to the role. The movie’s fight scenes have the same issue. There are a few fun moments, but for the most part, a multitude of cuts keep the fight sequences from being as impressive as they could be. Cuts and camera tricks can be used to enhance skillfully choreographed fights, but here they just further dilute Winstead’s fury and agony. Towards the end of the film, Kate’s literally on the brink of death, and a long slow motion action sequence ensues to show the audience just how much she’s losing her grip. But Winstead’s proven capable of showing this through her own movements — she doesn’t need help from effects. She continues to rage through the pain, but it’s as if the sequence is unfolding underwater; bogged down and dull.
And that’s the real rub with Kate. Everything unfolds beyond a thin veil of pretty and cool. Sure, everyone likes to look at nice things, but when you’ve got an actress — and an action star — of Winstead’s caliber, you don’t put her behind a scrim and let the audience watch her shadow. Winstead elevates Kate beyond what it might have been, but she deserves more than to be the best thing about a vapid film.
Kate is available to stream exclusively on Netflix now
by Sammie Purcell
Sammie is a news writer for Reporter Newspapers in Georgia, covering the communities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody in metro-Atlanta. She has previously written about film and television for publications such as Boston University News Service and Oz Magazine, and holds a Masters in Journalism from Boston University. For more fun insights about movies, life, or Florence Pugh’s character-defining turn as Amy in 2019’s Little Women, you can follow her on twitter @sammie_purcell8