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Sunday, October 24, 2021

‘Kate’ Review: A Dying Assassin Fills Her Bucket List With Blood

“You’re a Terminator,” Tokyo teen Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) gapes to Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) after witnessing the bloodshed her kidnapper has brought down on two dozen yakuza now lying shot, stabbed, sizzled on a yakitori grill and very, very dead. Kate, the titular antihero of director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s vicious vengeance flick, is a grown-up child assassin trained by her mentor (Woody Harrelson) in the art of death, a fate so common among on-screen orphans that their support group could fill a church basement. Yes, she can rack up quite the Schwarzenegger-esque kill count. But Kate’s Terminator resemblance also includes her left eye’s red and distended pupil, evidence of the polonium poisoning that will kill her in 24 hours. Other symptoms of this gimmick include blistered skin, pounding eardrums, wobbly knees and an urgency to take an entire gangster clan along with her to the grave. There is no cure. There is only carnage — and to his credit, Nicolas-Troyan (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) keeps the hits coming.

Kate is introduced on the most traumatic day of her job. She pulls up to an assignment in a dessert van — an unnecessarily cutesy touch — and finds she’s expected to snipe her target in front of his daughter, Ani. This goes against her only rule. But she pulls the trigger anyway and watches in slow-motion horror as the man’s blood spatters the girl’s face and coat, a carnation pink that recalls the moment Jackie O. went from style icon to tragic victim.

It’s a strong opening for a breed of action spectacle where audiences can map out the twists like they’ve been handed a Thomas Guide. The script by Umair Aleem is little more than a framework for the only two elements that matter: the fight choreography — quite good, courtesy of “John Wick’s” Jonathan Eusebio — and the wavelength of the star, which has come to mean everything. Often, a female actor in these grindhouse actioners adopts a stoic dreariness meant to pass for a gives-as-good-as-she-gets empowerment, as if anything so fanciful as a personality is a sign of weakness.

Winstead, however, chooses to play Kate as a human being — not some femmebot executioner dressed in latex or pigtails. She wears hoodies and, only somewhat cloyingly, a smiley face shirt purchased from a vending machine when her gear gets covered in gore. There’s life in her eyes and exhaustion in her gait. Winstead makes you believe, however improbably, that if a woman like Kate actually existed outside a screenwriter’s imagination, she wouldn’t be far off from this portrayal: isolated, mule-headed and ready for a change. But just as Kate decides to shake up her life, a handsome stranger slips a radioactive toxin into her wine glass and she’s forced back into making silencers out of convenience store flashlights and stabbing people through their soft palate.

Winstead’s naturalistic performance butts heads with the film’s exaggerated style. Nicolas-Troyan’s Tokyo is a fantasy land. The first aerial shot of the city is of Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel Tower clone seemingly designed to disorient tourists. This Tokyo is all goofball caricatures. Yakuza steam themselves like dumplings. J-pop singers dance in French maid outfits. Cars are outlined in neon like they sped out of Mario Kart. A penthouse has its very own bucket of suckerfish that nibble on a gangster moll’s pedicure, a distracting home-decor touch that leaves one nervous it could get kicked over on the way to the fridge for a midnight snack. When the regal Japanese star Jun Kunimura (“Kill Bill”), here playing the heavyweight boss at the center of the havoc, takes a swipe at Westerners who “gorge on cultures they don’t understand,” the line sounds more pointed than Nicolas-Troyan might have intended.

Lyle Vincent’s cinematography leans into the cartoon aesthetics. The standout action sequence takes place at an underworld social club where all the gangsters wear crisp black suits and glower in front of white rice-paper walls that double as panels in a comic book. The monochrome setting is an invitation for Kate to add a splash of color thanks to some artistic throat punctures, and the camera happily chases after her, whether she’s bursting through flimsy doors, leaping up fire escapes or in one nifty moment, bracing herself one story up in a narrow alley.

The body count becomes numbing. Yet Winstead’s Kate appears to weather the most damage. She’s no Teflon superhero, especially once the polonium kicks in and the soundtrack transitions from energetic Japanese pop to heavy taiga drums that remind us that Kate’s pulse is slowing down. Soon after, her path re-intersects with that of Ani, the traumatized teen from the opening, who’s now become visibly punk. The film tries to make the audience care about Kate’s possible redemption. More interesting, however, is the script’s hint that the teen is already a demi-sociopath. A bit when Ani takes a selfie with Kate’s unconscious body might have had more twisted humor on the page, but Martineau in her feature debut does well with a role that’s even more ludicrous than that of the leading lady.

It’s beyond obvious where this is going, that all this talk of family will sour into betrayal and eventually, a climax that postures as an emotional revelation. And it’s somewhat obvious to Nicolas-Troyan that the audience doesn’t really care. He just has to shoot enough stylish battles to get his film to the end credits, a quest for completion Kate herself would understand. “I’m dying,” she gasps. “I have to finish something.”

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