Extraction was a big hit for Netflix last year, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that its algorithm demanded the need for another film where a white actor who had previously played a superhero travels to a foreign land to murder countless scores of native henchmen, but it’s okay because they’re also protecting a child from that country. Kate is the result, and it’s not so much that the film is bad, as much as its approach is discomforting. The gaijin-perspective (gaijin meaning “foreigner”) doesn’t so much interrogate its outsider status as much as it simply makes the title character an interloper who’s largely indifferent towards her setting beyond wanting a particular soft drink. Tokyo exists in Kate because it’s stylish and cool, and this film wants to be stylish and cool. Thanks to the excellent lead performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead, it almost succeeds, but the film is so married to its predictable beats and outcomes that you can’t help but feel like it’s another product designed in the Netflix lab.
Kate (Winstead) is an assassin working for agency handler Varrick (Woody Harrelson), and has been in his employ basically since she was a kid and her parents were killed. During a mission in Osaka, Kate is executing a hit, but wants to back out when the target has his daughter Ani (Miku Patricia Martineau) in tow. However, Kate is forced to go through with the assassination, and ten months later, she’s wandering the streets of Tokyo and looking to get out of the game. However, before she has the chance to leave, she’s given a direct dose of radiation poisoning, which leaves her with only 24 hours to live. Set on a mission of vengeance to find out who wanted her dead and why, Kate goes on the warpath only to cross paths with Ani again and strike up an odd bond with the orphaned teenager.
While I didn’t much care for Extraction, I have to admit that Kate works better if only because its tone isn’t so dark and gritty. Whereas Extraction makes its way through slums and has its hero literally beating up children, Kate is wryer and more sardonic in its attitude. It uses the neon-lined streets of Tokyo to provide a visually inviting and electric template against to set its action. Plus instead of a stone-faced Chris Hemsworth (who is always better when films let him be funny and charismatic), you’ve got Winstead once against showing why she’s the heir to Sigourney Weaver with her tough-as-nails charm and a grin that says she could obliterate you if she wanted to.
And yet where I struggle to get past Kate is in its fetishization of Tokyo without really showing any love to its people beyond one or two characters. This is Tokyo through a white lens, and the mass hordes of bad guys are all Japanese. It can’t help but feel imperialist when you have a white character come on over to another country and just mow down lots of its natives simply because they’re the “henchmen.” That’s not to say that the character Kate or even the film itself is “racist”, but it does hammer home the point that when filmmakers make movies set in other countries, they need to do more than just say “We’re here because it’s cool.” I wholeheartedly agree that Tokyo is a stunning landscape and that the city offers rich and interesting culture, but I constantly found myself wondering why they didn’t simply cast a Japanese actor as Kate. I understand that Winstead has some star power, but the selling point here is the action and the premise, and it’s all just “content” to Netflix anyway.
Perhaps I’m being too culturally sensitive, but the contrast of lead character to her setting overshadows everything the film does right. The action is exhilarating and it makes you wish Winstead had her own franchise (Huntress spinoff when, Warner Bros?). Even Harrelson leaves an impression despite his limited screentime, and this is a great breakthrough performance for the young Martineau. Taken piecemeal and removed from the cultural/racial contexts, Kate is a success because it does what the Netflix machine says it should do: be like Extraction but with a few cosmetic tweaks. I don’t know how that will work out for viewing numbers (keep in mind that Extraction hit just as the pandemic was ramping up, so people were stuck at home with nothing to do, although arguably we’ve come back around to that point so way to go, America), but I can see the logic behind the picture.
As I said, I prefer Kate to Extraction, but they both suffer from the same issue, which is that it’s not great to send white characters into other people’s countries, kill their citizens and then justify it because they’re protecting an innocent kid. It’s fine to use other countries as locales for action movies, but filmmakers should be more conscientious about what it means to walk around another person’s land and what that means. Just because Kate is disposable entertainment, that doesn’t mean it should treat other cultures like trash.
Kate arrives on Netflix on September 10th.