D.O.A.—the 50’s noir in which a man must solve his own murder before he dies from poisoning—meets John Wick with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the lead role is the sort of thing that feels almost impossible to resist. That it lands during a current bumper crop of woman assassin movies dating back to last year that includes The Rhythm Section, Gunpowder Milkshake, Ava, and The Protégé didn’t even dull the anticipation.
Sadly, Kate Does Not Live Up to the Promise of its Elevator Pitch
That isn’t to say, however, that it is not a movie without its appeals.
First, Winstead crafts a strong performance out of what is, at this point, a stock character — woman rescued by a father figure after a personal tragedy and trained to follow in his assassin footsteps who must take on a near army to avenge a wrong. Winstead makes Kate messy and unpleasant without ostracizing the audience. So many of these films give their protagonists a glamorous sheen that having Kate been rough around the edges and only get more so over time makes her stand out. That Winstead manages that while still giving you the sense of a person worth mourning underneath is further impressive.
Joining Winstead on the positive side of the ledger is Miku Martineau as Ani, Kate’s hostage/kid sidekick. A bit of a flat entitled smart mouth at first, Martineau digs in pretty quickly. I’m especially fond of a scene where the actor manages to inject a scene of her taking selfies with a sleeping Kate with subtle broken heart pathos.
Unfortunately, the setting and the antagonists undercut these two noteworthy performances. Director of Photography Lyle Vincent’s cinematography only occasionally gets across the visual richness of Tokyo, but at least there are those occasions.
In contrast, neither director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and writer Umair Aleem seems to have a handle on why set the film in Toyko. As a result, Kate dwells in this queasy zone where it could be a city in Any City, Any Country, and fetishization. The biggest problem is that the movie never makes the setting matter. In Protégé, Vietnam is both the place of Maggie Q’s character’s tragedy and her first meeting with the man who changed her life. In Gunpowder Milkshake, the biggest setpieces unfold in places of significant memory for Karen Gillan’s protagonist. For Kate, Tokyo is just a place. If you can’t make the city pop and you can’t make it significant, why bother having your story there?
The anonymity of the antagonists only furthers this kind of genericity. A lot of action movies beset their protagonists with endless streams of nameless foot soldiers so that’s at least a trope. However, the smaller bosses are similarly flat and personality-less. Only Kijima (Jun Kunimura) stands out and he’s basically the crime boss who talks of honor a lot. The character is only salvaged by Kunimura’s remarkably gentle line readings and soft stare.
Even the typically reliable Woody Harrelson as Kate’s mentor Varrick feels greyed out. The script keeps most of Varrick and Kate’s interactions to phone calls which handicaps the emotional stakes. Taking that impediment into account still doesn’t explain why Harrelson feels so adrift here. In a movie that desperately needs someone else to pop, his lack of energy feels especially disappointing.
Yet, I cannot fully write the movie off entirely. Winstead and Martineau’s performances are worth seeing and the action has a visceral brutality. It’s just a shame that Kate surrounds that interesting, volatile center with so much blandness.