Monday, May 20, 2024

Mary Elizabeth Winstead Makes ‘Kate’ Great

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Kate is a movie that has clearly seen other movies but doesn’t feel compelled to beat you over the head with it. Instead, you sit there with a gleam in your eye, recognizing threads from other films as you watch in awe at the confidence in the scenes as they play out. On top of all that, it doesn’t look or move like a typical Netflix movie; it has a personality and a distinct vibe.

Cedric Nicolas-Troyan has blended a lot of different styles but has not made a fractured, disjointed movie. Kate is a visually choate film that brims with life and moves at a sure laconic pace. More than anything, I couldn’t help but think of David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which, considering he is one of the producers, is not all that surprising.

Umair Aleem’s script is straightforward. Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an assassin hired to take down a Yakuza gang. She is successful until eventually, one of them has her poisoned with radiation, polonium 204 to be exact. We follow Kate as she kicks, shoots, and stabs her way through Tokyo to find the man who signed her death warrant.

Kate looks like a manga and moves like an old-school noir. Only instead of New York or San Francisco, it’s Tokyo as the city that never sleeps. Kate and her newfound partner Ani (Miku Martineau) scurry down back alleys, drive drag-racing cars with neon pink lit interiors, visit private clubs, dance clubs, and high-rise office buildings. The movie bubbles with glee as every scene seem to be ecstatic just to exist.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate and Miku Martineau as Ani

Much of the film’s success is due to Winstead’s note-perfect performance. Winstead’s Kate is an amalgamation of American women in action films yet still uniquely Winstead’s own creation. Kate is a character that is fully formed from the first scene we meet her. The moment she comes on screen, Winstead tells us everything we need to know; her Kate is a living, breathing character with an inner life, and she does all of this without ever uttering a word.

Like Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde, Winstead’s Kate is allowed to wallow in a sort of stoicism usually reserved for men. True Aleem’s script has her eventually becoming a surrogate guardian for Ani, the daughter of a Yakuza she once killed, the one-hit that she regrets. But the way Winstead handles this tired trope is refreshing. 

Winstead, and the film, comfortably live in the silence between the action sequences and pulsating J-Pop. In Winstead’s performance, you can see shades of Humphrey Bogart and Robert Mitchum mixed with Linda Hamilton and others. The point is she’s allowed a coolness and a swagger generally reserved for the male stars of action films.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Kate

The casting of Kate, in general, is one of the great treasures of the film. Aleem’s script is fun and minimalist and doesn’t chicken out in the end for the sake of fanservice, but at times it does feel a little slight. For example, Woody Harrelson plays Kate’s handler, Varrick.

He has lines that, delivered by another actor, we may not have been able to take seriously. Take, for example, his line early on as he explains to Kate why Kijima (Jun Kunimura) wants her dead. Any other actor delivering this line would have tried too hard. But in Harrelson’s hands, it’s a line that makes us laugh and gives us insight into the world in which Varrick and Kate exist.

Underneath all of Lyle Vincent’s grounded stylistic camera work rumbles a stream of pathos and regret. Vincent’s backdrops are not just gorgeous and sparse set designs but often express Kate’s emotional interior. Vincent and Nicolas-Troyan use the style to lay out the emotional journey of a woman who has been used all her life and is unsure how to react any other way.

Kate looks like a comic book but never in an overproduced way. Instead, Vincent and Nicolas-Troyan create a sort of exaggerated realism. Even if the set looks mundane, they will use lighting or some element in the background to make the scene pop or tell us something about Kate or Ani.

Martineau, a half-white, half-Japanese girl whose family members are also hunting her because of a power vacuum, is an extension of Kate. A reminder of what she was before her trauma happened. Typical and admittedly almost cliche, but Martineau never plays Ani, a precocious teen. She plays her like a real teen, enamored by violence until she is asked to perpetrate it, and once she does, she is significantly impacted by it.

Nicolas-Troyan and Vincent understand that the best special effect they have is the human face. Vincent’s camera lovingly captures the actors’ faces in Kate, allowing us to take in the wrinkles and smirks of his actors. But even better is that Vincent and Nicolas-Troyan understand blocking and scene composition. Kate doesn’t just look good because of bi-lighting and excellent noir aesthetics, but because each scene seems to have been thought about before being shot. 

From left to right: Winstead, Woody Harrelson, and Martineau

This is helped by the editing of Sandra Montiel and Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, who are, as far as I can tell, the only women voices behind the camera. Their cutting is crucial to the overall rhythm, and I would wager why Kate doesn’t feel drenched in the male gaze. But, gender aside, the two women also know how to splice together an action scene and keep the rhythm visceral.

Still, in the end, Kate is a film primarily made by white people about white people in Tokyo. Yet, Aleem’s script touches on this as well. Kunimura’s Kijima has a beautiful monologue about the West, a bald face commentary on our colonialism and cultural appropriation. However, I could never shake the feeling that Tokyo, Kijima, and the others were merely being used as set dressing. They do not seem to possess the inner lies of, say, Varrick or Kate, try as the filmmakers might to convey otherwise.

Yet, the film’s attitude towards death is refreshing. The characters fear it not because it means the end of a franchise but because death, the world of Kate, is final. But Aleem’s script has the wonderful audacity to have the characters talk about death and even share their philosophies on it. Movies inspired by comic books-or made to emulate comic books rarely have their characters say anything of consequence, much less allow for winding conversations. Kate is by no means a profound philosophical treatise about the nature of death, but the fact that they entertain even talking about it out loud sets it apart.

Jun Kunimura as Kijimi

Kate is a movie that understands what it wants to be and never needs to undercut its seriousness with moments of humor or ironic detachment. But above all else, Winstead gives one of the best performances of her career and makes me excited to see what else she does. Whatever flaws Kate may have it more than makes up for them by the end.

Image courtesy of Netflix

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