Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s performance in “Kate” is one of the most powerful in action movie history. Before you dismiss performances in action movies, understand that yeah – the genre is relentlessly derivative. It repeats ideas and plot formulae we can recognize a mile off. “Kate” doesn’t dodge this; it’s what works. Instead, it uses what’s familiar to focus in on Winstead’s masterful embodiment of desperation and will.
“Kate” is a ticking clock movie, and one that poses physical degradation as a complicating mechanic. An assassin by trade, Winstead’s Kate is poisoned before a job. It’s radiation poisoning, giving her less than a day to live. She uses the night she has left to doggedly pursue finishing this last job. As the hours progress, her body starts to fail her. She becomes sloppier, blunter, less finessed, more vicious.
Ticking clock movies usually don’t take themselves too seriously. As dramatic as the concept is, it tends to be recycled in action movies that incorporate satire or comedy, from “Escape from New York” to the “Crank” franchise. “Kate” plays it seriously, though, using the opportunity to create a character piece around Winstead.
Ticking clocks are also used a lot in horror, and this informs its use in “Kate” better. This film isn’t part of that genre, but it is a survival action movie. Kate doesn’t show up and utterly dominate everyone, showing how much of a badass she is. She increasingly fights her way out of corners as she wears down. That’s no less badass, but what it does is remove ego from the equation. Her impending death forces Kate to confront uncomfortable realities about how she got here, emotional truths she’s held close that no longer seem to be as true.
She ends up paired with Ani, the daughter of a Yakuza leader she assassinated. While Kate had wanted to leave the profession, this isn’t a matter of the “strength through motherhood” trope that often gets foisted onto childless women action heroes. Instead, Ani is a reset – someone at the fork in the road where Kate took the wrong path. Kate needs to use her to complete the job she started, to finish that path in the little time she has remaining, but this increasingly forces Ani down that path as well.
Miku Martineau is capable of holding the screen on her own as Ani, which means that it doesn’t come off as a typical youth role. Winstead’s performance never has to carry Martineau’s. Instead, the two performances are both incredibly strong, and enable the two characters to embody their themes in the complementary and conflicting ways the film most wants to investigate.
Understand for the review part of this, “Kate” is one of my favorite action movies. Period. Not on Netflix. Not of the year. It is one of my favorite action movies ever made. It uses what’s familiar and has been done before as the meat of something that’s deeply emotionally resonant. It does this in a complex way that heightens action that’s already superb. I expect to be talking about it at the end of the year as one of 2021’s best films.
That’s the summary, but I’d also like to get into some more precise conversations surrounding “Kate”. I’ll do this without major spoilers, since a lot of this intersects issues of theme, influence, and culture.
The major comparison “Kate” seems to be getting is to “John Wick”. I couldn’t disagree more, so let’s get into the weeds on this. The takeaway seems to be that “John Wick” is better because the fight scenes are more elegant. The real difference is that Keanu Reeves is smoother and enables the filmmakers to incorporate some longer takes because he’s done several martial arts-heavy films before. If pressed, I’d say “John Wick” incorporates a more proficient fight choreo, but not by that much. This also treats fight choreography like it’s only capable of being one thing. It’s like saying “Lawrence of Arabia” has better music than “Jaws”. Sure, I guess, but those two scores aren’t even remotely interested in doing the same thing.
“Kate” involves its title character fighting her way out of corners the whole time. When done this well, and with the kind of performance Winstead delivers, that’s deeply compelling. “John Wick” is a B-grade movie with A-grade Keanu and gun ballet. Those are compelling in campier, more meta ways.
The desperate, ferocious fights in “Kate” carry a weight, involvement, and cost. The efficiency and elegance in “John Wick” are more exploitative, worshipful, and operatic. Neither intent is better nor worse, but comparing them as if they’re reaching for the same goal requires you to ignore what one or the other is really doing.
I don’t dislike the fight choreo in “John Wick” because there are movies with even better choreography out there, so why would I judge “Kate” like that? Frankly, I actually prefer the choreography in “Kate” because even if it’s more edited, it ties into a far more ambitious emotional thread. It has more to do with the movie surrounding it. Remember, fight choreo isn’t just there to impress – the best fight scenes also act like dialogue scenes, regardless of whether actual dialogue happens in them.
What that means is that a relationship changes or the audience gains a new understanding over the course of the fight scene. Something happens in that fight scene to give us access to a new perspective in the story. The fight scenes in “John Wick” are great set-pieces, but they’re the entire point. The fight scenes in “Kate” are great set-pieces that also progress the film’s themes, our emotional understanding of the characters, and the relationships between them.
It doesn’t hurt that “Kate” is a far better movie on the whole. Winstead’s acting within these action scenes is phenomenal, and reaches places that – much as I adore him – Reeves has only ever matched in a brief scene here or there.
If you’re assessing these films on which one makes the better “John Wick” movie, then “John Wick” is obviously going to win. Like, no shit, John Wick is the ideal John Wick, way to solve that one Plato.
The better comparisons for “Kate” are films like 1998 anime actioner “Kite”, 2006 anime series “Black Lagoon”, and – thematically and psychologically – the “Alien” trilogy. “Kate” draws heavily from both anime and cyberpunk influences. There are references to series like “Tokyo Ghoul” and the cinematography and editing are clearly influenced by touchstones like “Akira”, “Ghost in the Shell”, and “Blade Runner”.
Let’s tackle the “Alien” trilogy because that’s perhaps the weirdest connection to draw here. “Kate” explicitly calls out this connection in its costuming choices for Winstead, but why the two are so connected is more thematic than stylistic. While the “Alien” trilogy is primarily about a woman forced into situations where men ignore her and everything falls apart as a result, it also carries a theme and iconography of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as a mother. The “strength through motherhood” metaphor is both explored (in “Aliens”) as Ripley constructs an ad hoc family, and later inverted (in “Alien 3”).
That metaphor is used beautifully in many films, yet when we feel women can’t exist as action heroes without this being incorporated, it turns many films about childless action heroes (or heroes who have lost children, like Ripley) into a criticism. The character arc they go through is having their motherhood – and thus strength – fulfilled, but this means what’s missing from them at the start is having a child. The character arc in many women-led action films treats them as lacking worth or direction until a child figure comes into their life and allows them to be a mother. This treats the initial fault in a character as that of not having children, which is pretty shitty to call a fault.
Yet the “Alien” trilogy also uses this, both in “Aliens” and “Alien 3”, as a theme for what’s been ripped away from Ripley. It’s not solely about becoming a mother, and this is where David Fincher’s “Alien 3” is often underrated and misunderstood as a thematic continuation for “Aliens”. It’s about the choices that have been taken away from Ripley. It’s not just Ripley’s family that have been ripped away from her, it’s her choices as to how she wants to live her life. Her choices have been repeatedly given away by a corporation that’s relentlessly willing to sacrifice her and the lives of those around her.
“Kate” plays with a lot of the same themes. When her handler, played by Woody Harrelson, asks her if she wants to quit to have a family, she tells him that’s her business. When she becomes responsible in a way for Ani, she’s not magically getting a child in her last day of life. Instead, Kate witnesses in her own actions toward Ani the very way that she was desensitized and trained toward violence. Kate’s not mothering Ani; she’s witnessing herself as a corrupting influence that teaches and perpetuates an ongoing cycle of violence. She is taking away choices from Ani in the same way choices were taken away from her. It’s not lacking a child that she needs to fix in her last day, it’s solving the cycle of violence for someone she put down that path in the first place.
Now, films that incorporate a white hero killing countless people of color can be extremely problematic. I won’t say “Kate” entirely avoids this, but it does take a number of left turns that comment on this cycle of exploitation. The film is staunchly anti-colonialist, but it takes a while to get there.
Complicating this is that we’ve got a French director, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, making a film that takes place in Japan and intersects deeply with Japanese culture to comment on these cycles. “Kate” wasn’t entirely filmed in Japan, and little details can stand out. A scene that incorporates a vending machine doesn’t use a Japanese vending machine, for instance. Those details can be overlooked, but they’re evidence that not everything was done as cleanly as can be.
The influence of anime on “Kate” is complicated. Anime itself has undergone massive changes over the decades as it was influenced by Western cyberpunk, which was influenced by Beat literature, which was informed by Dadaism, which was also popular in Japan and gave rise to much of anime’s original look, and Dadaism was influenced by photomontage, which was influenced by Surrealism, which drew from both sub-Saharan sculpture and post-impressionism, which was partly influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e, and the list goes on.
That kind of argument often gets employed to cover over appropriation, so it’s not a cover-all. I bring it up because it’s useful within context, delineating between something having a conversation with its influences vs. appropriating them. There are a lot of fuzzy boundaries with that. I would say that “Kate” leans more heavily toward conversing with these influences and referencing them in clear ways, but I’m also not Japanese, and so not best positioned to say that for sure. I’m also unclear how well it intersects with Japanese culture, something that Western action movies have a pretty bad track record of doing.
One thing I really enjoyed is that Kate doesn’t fight like a woman or a man. She fights like a fighter. I was personally bothered by the logic behind the fight choreo in “Atomic Blonde”, for instance. While the choreography for “Atomic Blonde” is exceptionally inventive, it also includes a lot that’s unnecessary. A kick by someone trained can deliver at least 5,000 newtons of force. That’s in excess of 1,100 pounds force (lbf). A punch can deliver at least 450 lbf. Understand that both of those are on the low end for someone trained in fighting, and it takes only a few hundred lbf to break most bones. Breaking a jaw, elbow, or collarbone are all well under 100.
There’s a reason that when you watch UFC or any martial arts competition, women don’t have some completely different fighting style from the men. Weighing less and having less reach is going to change some things, just like it does for anyone fighting a taller or stronger opponent, but the fundamentals and muscle memory connecting movement and technique are not completely rewritten.
Women train in the same arts with the same fundamentals to have the same muscle memory. Winstead isn’t doing any cinematic “but I’m a woman” choreographic adjustments. She’s not gymnastically somersaulting to plant her legs either size of a dude’s head to ridiculously throw him. Why do that when she can just punch him in the neck and grab something sharp? The fight choreo here is exceptional, and it’s largely the same choreography they’d give a man in the same role. That is still disappointingly rare on film, despite being more realistic to how fighters – regardless of gender – fight. Trained is trained, and it’s nice to see a film act that way.
This has been a banner year for action movies led by women. It might be the best we’ve ever had. “Black Widow” gave us a James Bond-like thriller better than the Bond franchise manages these days. “Gunpowder Milkshake” delivered a surreal, comedic, vaporwave Western. “Jungle Cruise” hearkened back to archaeology adventure classics of yore. “Shadow in the Cloud” built one of the most dread-filled atmospheres on film. “Those Who Wish Me Dead” perfected the form of the 90s disaster action hybrid. All these have been good, some have been exceptional. “Kate” is a god damned miracle.
You can watch “Kate” on Netflix.
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