Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s charmingly awkward portrayal of the assassin Huntress was one of the highlights of last year’s Birds of Prey, and this week’s Netflix entry Kate finds her ditching the uncomfortable humor for a more straightforward tale of bullets and bloodshed. The Huntsman: Winter’s War director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan helms this stylish-but-shallow revenge saga, heavily influenced by the likes of John Wick and Crank, but lacking the originality or entertainment value of either.
After a decades-long career murdering her way through a list of high profile Yakuza operatives, elite assassin Kate (Winstead) is haunted by her most recent job, which found her pulling the trigger while her target’s teenage daughter looked on in horror. Ten months later, she’s tasked with eliminating Kijima (Jun Kunimura), the head of a prominent crime family, but the job goes awry when Kate’s body begins to break down from the effects of acute radiation syndrome. With less than 24 hours to live, she embarks on a violent rampage through Tokyo to finish her assignment and find the person who poisoned her.
With mentor and longtime handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson) supporting from the shadows, Kate tracks down a promising lead: Kijima’s bratty, foul-mouthed niece Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau), the same girl whose father Kate previously gunned down. That Ani is destined to become Kate’s feisty sidekick, or that the duo will eventually have a falling out once Ani learns of her new pal’s connection to the traumatic events of her past, is obvious from the moment Kate snatches her from the crowd at a J-Pop concert and uses her as bait to lure Kijima’s thugs out of hiding.
Nearly everything Kate brings to the table has been done before, but Nicolas-Troyan attempts to inject a sense of personality by staging the numerous action sequences in visually arresting locales, which range from tea houses to neon-soaked marketplace stalls to a posh penthouse in the middle of downtown. Each of these environments is destined to be littered with bullet casings, blood spatters and severed limbs before Kate is finished, and the gritty, often gruesome shootouts provide ample carnage for action fans to devour.
Winstead is a believable badass, dispatching wave after wave of interchangeable bad guys with ease — at one point, she slices off her own ponytail along with an assailant’s fingers — and radiating cool when she casually saunters into the lobby of an office building, covered in blood with a cigarette barely attached to her lower lip (naturally, this moment is capture in slow motion for maximum effect). But the characters and narrative are as thin as the paper walls Kate paints with the blood of Yakuza henchmen, and every time the bullets stop flying, we’re left with little reason to care.