“You sure you don’t wanna use the variable scope for this?”
“No, I’ve got a lock on vector and trajectory.”
So go the first lines of dialogue in Kate, which streams Friday on Netflix — the latest in a long and increasingly indistinguishable line of badassassin cinema. Later, someone says to the titular killer poisoned by polonium: “Death is a beginning, yes?”
From a this-and-that grab bag of 3 Days to Kill and Atomic Blonde to mashup philosophical notions about the great gig in the sky, Kate is sloppy Mad Lib cinema all around. That philosophy is pitched somewhere between “vaguely Eastern” (in keeping with Kate’s demeaning, dead-horsed “otherness” of a Japanese setting) and Schopenhauer’s insistence that life is suffering and existence is a constant slow-motion crawl toward inevitable death.
Maybe that midpoint is the refrain of Semisonic’s “Closing Time”: Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. Outside of some expectedly nimble fight choreography from 87North Productions (the folks behind John Wick and Nobody), Kate basically feels born from a need to feed a content machine because it’s been a few weeks since this particular meal.
How particular can this set of skills really be when we see them so often? With the effective wallop of films like the Wick saga or The Villainess, the assassin genre is certainly not as moribund as Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s title character appears throughout most of Kate, stalking Yakuza bigwigs and wannabes to find out who ordered her poisoning. Winstead certainly does her best to lend life support here, endowing her fight scenes with a feral, underestimated energy and hoisting a sturdy middle finger to her marginalization the last time she showed up in one of these things, Ang Lee’s even-worse tech-fetish Gemini Man.
Winstead resembles a cross of Ryan Gosling’s Driver and a driver for Grubhub, and she has fun with the way Kate snags snacks while interrogating and ventilating people. She also undercuts a moment of Chow Yun-fat swagger with some pointed physical decrepitude; you can almost feel Kate’s organs pumping bile for the last mile. The problem is that Winstead’s often persuasive scenes as pummeler or pummelee are simply strung together by genericism: Kate has been molded to kill. It just feels moldy as hell.
To use the parlance of Gemini Man, Kate (Winstead) has been AMF-ing targets for 12 years. She hasn’t missed once and doesn’t intend to start now. But she’s troubled by a “Code 5” on her latest hit, a teenaged girl at the side of Kate’s target. Indeed, Kate does not miss. But she becomes remiss about her assassin acumen over the next few months and announces to her longtime handler, Varrick (Woody Harrelson), that After This Next One, She’s Out For Good®.
Wouldn’t you know it? Kate finally misses but only because she’s clearly unwell. After a CGI-bonanza car chase that makes Speed Racer feel like Bullitt, Kate learns she has acute radiation syndrome and will likely be dead by dawn or shortly thereafter. Can Kate exact revenge before expiring? Will she find one true friend … who just so happens to be the girl (Miku Martineau) whose father she merked? Has Harrelson really not shown up in something like this before?
Kate is written by Umair Aleem (Extraction … no, not that one, the, uh, Bruce Willis and Gina Carano one), and he saddles poor Martineau with bottom-shelf quips like “Fuck you, cancer bitch” or “You’re a badass killer motherfucker.” Outside of brief feints at the folly of escaping indentured servitude to slaughter, Kate’s story offers similarly puerile and profane provocations.
That leaves the action, which director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) handles with the instincts of a seasoned traffic cop, yielding the run of the road to the 87North stunt professionals. Nicolas-Troyan mostly forgoes flashy nonsense for straightforward fisticuffs and gunplay, namely when Kate bloodies up the sterile shoji screens of an exclusive club and when she must fend off a well-to-do killer (Miyavi) using only his fancy kitchen gadgets.
“I’m Kate, and they’re gonna know I was here,” the heroine says ahead of advancing her quest for blood. Honestly, they’ll only know it for however long Netflix keeps Kate on the home screen. In the menagerie of movies about mercenary murderers, only action panache and allegorical precision can make them memorable. (Only Nobody benefits from the performative novelty of Bob Odenkirk kicking ass.) Kate has decent panache but none of that precision. Maybe the vector and trajectory weren’t so locked in after all. Maybe try the variable scope next time.