Pink-wigged teenage killing machine Sawa (India Eisley) poses as an underage hooker in order to infiltrate and eliminate the sex-trafficking gangs kidnapping children off the city streets in a grimy dystopian future. She plans to slay her way to the top to uncover the identity of the mob boss who murdered her parents. Secretly aiding Sawa in this quest and hiding her from the police is cool cop Karl Acker (Samuel L. Jackson), her father's ex-partner. Acker also reluctantly supplies Sawa with a unique drug enabling her to suppress painful memories but to which she has grown dangerously addicted. With cops on her tail and the mob increasingly wary, Sawa's revenge rampage is further complicated when she meets Oburi (Callan McAuliffe), a boy who claims to know a secret from her past.
Made in South Africa with an international cast, Kite is a live action remake of a Japanese anime that remains controversial even within fan circles. Heavily inspired by Luc Besson's thrillers Nikita (1990) and Leon (1994), celebrated chara designer turned writer-director Yasunori Umezu's original 1998 OAV concerns a Japanese schoolgirl assassin trapped in an abusive paedophilic relationship with a corrupt middle-aged cop while searching for her parents' killer. It was alternately praised by fans for its uncompromising drama and balletic action scenes and criticized for simultaneously decrying and wallowing in scenes of extreme violence, child abuse and underage sex. The remake wisely jettisons the sexual relationship between Sawa and Acker in favour of a paternal bond that cuts a little deeper on an emotional level. On the other hand, the many scenes where Sawa endures rough treatment at the hands of various grotesque pederasts remain effectively unpleasant.
With its sleek neon visuals, pumping techno soundtrack and punk kung fu minx heroine in a pink wig the remake comes across an even more overt Luc Besson homage than Umezu's anime while its stylized but grim vision of a grubby, grafitti-ridden future full of foul mouthed Mockney gangsters and free-jumping feral teenagers is closer to British comic book adaptations like Dredd (2012) than anything distinctly Japanese. South African filmmaker Ralph Ziman inherited the production when original director David R. Ellis, who directed Jackson in Snakes on a Plane (2006), passed away on the first day of shooting. He handles the urban action capably along with a vividly realized dystopia but his storytelling is stilted and the film has an odd habit of switching plot-lines before viewers can come to grips with any particular strand.
Nevertheless there remains an undeniable vicarious thrill in watching the teen heroine eviscerate various grotesque sex trafficking gangsters in gory detail. What is more the capable cast pull off the odd affecting moment (using the drug to forget unpleasant encounters has the side effect of blurring Sawa's memories of her parents) including a final face off that injects a satisfying layer of moral and emotional complexity. Through its emotional arc charting the numb heroine eventually reconnecting with other human beings the film reflects some of the cathartic themes in Umezu's original. Whereas Samuel L. Jackson delivers the stock Samuel L. Jackson performance, which is to say dependably solid if over-familiar, his young co-stars make more of an impression with Callan McAuliffe quietly charismatic. Angelically lovely India Eisley, daughter of Romeo & Juliet (1968) star Olivia Hussey and granddaughter of actor Anthony Eisley, shows star potential with an intense performance.