Mary Elizabeth Winstead has featured in a string of action films including “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World“, “Gemini Man” and recently impressed DC fans with her turn as Helen Bertinelli (aka The Huntress) in “Birds of Prey“.
Here she takes the lead in an action thriller that mixes the best of Hollywood noir with the exhilaration of Hong Kong cinema, topped with ‘ohn Wick‘-style storytelling, along with a big dollop of action-filled, explosive gun-fu!
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Kate, a deadly assassin at the top of her game on a mission of vengeance after learning she’s been poisoned with 24 hours to live.
Canadian actress Miku Martineau plays Ani, niece of Yakuza boss Kijima, (played by Jun Kunimura) at first kidnapped by Kate for leverage but with whom she forms a maternal bond. Woody Harrelson plays Varrick, Kate’s father figure mentor and handler, whose deadly missions are backed by his own, self-serving agenda.
Tadanobu Asano (“47 Ronin“) plays Renji, Kijima’s right-hand man plotting to take over his oyabun’s criminal empire. Musician, Takamasa Ishihira, better known as ‘Miyavi’ plays Renji’s flamboyant and deadly housemate, Jojima.
Meticulous and deadly, Kate is the perfect specimen of a finely-tuned assassin at the height of her game.
After a job that involved taking out her target in front of a child – something Kate vowed she would never do, she announces to her handler, Varrick of her wish to retire after one last job.
With her latest target in sight, she begins to feel unwell and the assignment ends up getting botched. She learns, after a car crash, that she has been poisoned with radiation and only has 24 hours to live…
Enraged, Kate goes on a war path to track down and exact revenge on the people who signed her death certificate. Along the way, she uncovers an unlikely conspiracy and forms an unlikely bond with the teenage daughter of one of her past victims.
When people say there’s nothing new under the sun they could easily be talking about “Kate”. The team of writer Umair Aleem, and director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) draw on numerous plot devices and familiar visuals, and yet the old tale of an assassin on the run is given a new twist with thrilling results. That twist comes in the form of the fatal poison given to Kate during a one night stand.
The poisoned protagonist story is not entirely new and was the central plot of the 1950’s noir/comedy thriller “D.O.A”, later remade in 1988 starring Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan.
Showdown at The Black Lizard
In the film’s first major action set-up where Kate storms The Black Lizard club, Kate battles Sato’s henchmen. The almost impossible-to-kill hero can be a tiresome trope at times in any other film. However adding the radiation poisoning plot point adds that sense of urgency to the fight as Kate, pumped full of adrenaline and pain killers, kicks, strikes, disarms, throws, slices and dices Sato’s men.
Normally henchmen are dispensed with easily, but Kate’s already visible degenerative symptoms make it harder, and it’s sold with plenty of convincing drama by Winstead.
The Black Lizard is packed with plenty of familiar fight action including kali-style knife fights and bone-crunching judo and jiu jitsu throws.
Interestingly, director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan opted for interesting camera angles and, in one instance, flips the camera 180 degrees as it follows a henchman being thrown. This is highly effective in giving the fight a dizzying and exhilarating feel, but for some reason the director chose to use this only once.
From here on in, the action is a little more relentless but Kate struggles to put anyone in her way as the radiation’s degenerative effects become increasingly
manifest. Kate is dying and thankfully, the filmmakers never let us forget it, adding jolts of realism to the unstoppable assassin.
The film pauses for Kate and Ani to bond, giving action fans a touching nod to the Ripley/Newt relationship in “Aliens”, or even Arnold Schwarzenegger and Edward Furlong in “Terminator 2”.
There are also plenty of ‘24’ style interrogative scenes aimed at helping Kate get closer to the truth. Here Winstead really comes into her own as an actress showing her character’s soft side without losing her cold, methodical demeanour needed to survive.
Scuffle in the Kitchen
If there’s one tiny flaw in this matchup between Kate and Jojima, Renji’s housemate, it’s perhaps that it could’ve been a little longer.
This brutal and messy fight with a bit of funky J-Pop playing in the background is one of the film’s more entertaining and lighter action scenes.
Miyavi hams it up a treat as the psychotic enforcer, oozing with arrogant confidence as he woefully underestimates his opponent’s ability to ignore her ailing body.
Whilst Jojima postures and gloats in between his attacks, the intense Kate throws everything at him save the kitchen sink. It almost feels as if this is a quintessential straight-man / comic-relief pair up – but slightly darker with enough entertainment value and intrigue to keep you hooked…and amused.
Storming Renji’s Palace
The finale doesn’t disappoint either as the film’s plot twists unravel and even at death’s door, Kate strolls in with a cool swagger to get her revenge, equipped with some sword-wielding back up.
There are shootouts aplenty in a variety of unsettling settings – any scene that involves the lights going out and only laser sighting visible is inherently chilling.
Here Winstead’s performance as the dying assassin amps up the drama combined with some vintage martial-fu and gun-fu. There’s even a pause for a classic clash of samurai swords between Kijima and Renji.
Things get explosive again with Kate unleashing hell in a vintage John Woo-style gun fight – at times getting up close and blood splatteringly personal – yes folks the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre makes a comeback…
The dramatic interplay of the finale is as important as the action, and this all plays out as the inevitable tragedy of Kate’s plight comes to a head. Winstead shows she can handle the visceral and the martial with equal skill all the way to its heartbreaking “Blade Runner”-style ending.
”Kate” offers nothing new in terms of storyline and plot since much of the film features tropes we’ve seen many times. From the quintessential assassin with a heart of gold to the bleak criminal underworld setting, this is all very familiar fare.
Yet add in the plot of the poisoned protagonist whose life clock is furiously ticking away headed by an actress eager to take the reins of her first lead role, and you have pure, solid entertainment. Forget that you’ve seen much of this before and just enjoy the emotional, adrenaline-fuelled ride.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead bears much of the weight of the film on her shoulders and carries it off impeccably well. Her performance as the title role is flawless conveying the intensity and raw emotion of someone up against the clock whilst handling the action with great aplomb. Without Winstead it’s hard to know if the film would’ve worked as well, but thankfully we never get to find out.
Winstead is ably supported by the remaining cast, all of whose characters are written adequately enough to keep Kate’s mission and redemption at the heart of the film’s story.
- “Boom Boom Lemon?” – Kate
- “Death is the time for beginnings.” – Kijima
- “Are you going to let that pain overwhelm you, control you? Maybe you can embrace it and let it empower you.” – Varrick
- Mary Elizabeth Winstead was reunited with her stunt partner from “Gemini Man” Hayley Wright, and they trained together prior to filming. Unfortunately Hayley was injured on the first day of filming.
- “Kate” is the second film produced by 87 North Productions (formerly 87Eleven) established by David Leitch and Kelly McCormick. The company was set up in 2019 in partnership with Universal Pictures.
- Upcoming projects include “Bullet Train” starring Brad Pitt and Hiroyuki Sanada, a reboot of the classic TV series “Kung-Fu”, “Atomic Blonde 2” and of course “John Wick Chapter 4 & 5” under the direction of Chad Stahelski.
- Stunt Coordinator Jonathan Eusebio previously worked with Winstead on the DC action flick “Birds of Prey” in which she played Helena Bertinelli aka The Huntress.
- Winstead trained in ballet which she attributes to her ability to pick up the action choreography much quicker. This allowed for longer takes and less cuts.
- During the kitchen fight both Winstead and Miyavi suffered injuries; Winstead was sent flying to the ground by a headbutt accidentally applied at full force whilst Miyavi had his eye cut by a piece of glass. By the end of filming this fight scene both actors were bloodied and bruised.
- Winstead performed around 90% of her stunts and fight action.
- To prepare her for the gruelling work behind the fast and bloody action, 87North trained Winstead in Jiu Jitsu and boxing This was used to great effect in the fight at The Black Lizard.
- This is writer Umair Aleem’s first script. London born Aleem’s aesthetic influence for the story stem from 1970’s to 1990’s Japanese cinema from, in particular, the work of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.
- To ensure there were no problems with production, director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan visited the shrine of Oiwa, who in Japanese folklore is an onryō, a ghost seeking revenge. It was said anyone who did not pay respect at the temple would be cursed.
- The story of Oiwa is told in a Kabuki (Japanese dance drama) play called ‘Yotsuya Kaidan’, a version of which is performed in the film during The Black Lizard scene.