The latest John Wick rip-off, Gunpowder Milkshake, can be summarised as follows: What if Avengers: Endgame’s female-superheroes-assemble scene was turned into a two-hour film featuring one of the actors from that scene, with plenty of bisexual lighting and a cute kid threw in for good measure? The unnuanced, ungraceful, and often dull Gunpowder Milkshake is fueled by the simplicity (and maybe superficiality) of this kind of girl-power-rah-rah energy. The film’s fleeting pleasures are pleasurable for a time, but then numbness sets in, much like the brain freeze that sets in after slurping on the titular ice cream dessert.
Gunpowder Milkshake has a strong supporting cast, with a seemingly lab-grown, algorithm-assembled array of ingredients aimed to suit everyone. (In particular, Lena Headey of Game of Thrones outshines Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy.) The production design alternates between replicating Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-soaked extravagance and Michael Mann’s minimally cool neo-noirs, and there are a handful of spectacular action situations. But it’s hard to determine what Navot Papushado’s directing style is since Gunpowder Milkshake feels like a mash-up of other filmmakers’ peculiarities, from Zack Snyder’s slow-motion tableau pans to J.J. Abrams’ shaky camera work.
Snap-zooms by J.J. Abrams. Gunpowder Milkshake, like so many modern action films, is hindered by an aggressive editing style that denies spectators the delight of seeing corpses in motion. And, like so many recent female-targeted films, it’s full of feminist promises that end up seeming hollow.
The cause of women helping women isn’t wholly ignored in Gunpowder Milkshake. A mother guards her daughter, a twenty-something lady befriends and mentors a young girl, and three ladies joyously welcome back family members who have been gone for years. However, there is no depth to the story, and the writer never delves into what these characters have in common other than their gender. Gunpowder Milkshake does the bare minimum, and while it makes some good aesthetic choices, it lacks the uniqueness that a picture like this demands.
Because it is, after all, well-known. From the John Wick trilogy to Atomic Blonde (with which it shares a production designer, art director, and set decorator), as well as Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Gareth Evans’ The Raid and The Raid 2, the picture is frustratingly incapable of improving on its obvious influences. When does homage become imitation, and when does imitation cease to be entertaining? Both of those queries are answered in the negative for Gunpowder Milkshake.
Sam (Gillan), an assassin for the nebulously powerful, all-male organization the Firm, is introduced through voiceover narration in Gunpowder Milkshake. Sam explains, “They’ve been governing things for a long, long time,” and she and her handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti) have been killing people for them for 15 years, since her mother Scarlet (Headey), who was also an assassin for the Firm, abandoned her. After she murders her newest target, sews up her injuries, and further cultivates her scary image, they parted at a rain-soaked, purple-lit café, which Sam still frequents for its milkshakes. Her life begins to disintegrate after a task goes awry one night and she murders someone unexpectedly.
Nathan informs her that if she finds a person who stole from the Firm, murders them, and returns the money to the group, everything would be well. Sam gets to it throughout — perhaps one night, perhaps a couple of days, the film is ambiguous on this — but nothing is as simple as it appears. Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Anna May (Angela Bassett), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh) are “librarians” (also weaponeers and armorers) who remind her of her childhood and mother. Emily (Chloe Coleman), the daughter of one of Sam’s victims, feels a sense of personal responsibility after meeting her.
Sam must use all of her shooting, cutting, stabbing, punching, kicking, and mixed-martial-arts talents to defend herself from opponents Jim (Ralph Ineson) and Virgil (Adam Nagaitis). She deadpans, “Just another day at the office,” but that isn’t entirely true, especially when her long-lost mother returns.
Gillan has established himself as an action star thanks to the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji series. So why does she waste Gunpowder Milkshake imitating an ineffective Uma Thurman rather than honing her version of Sam? The picture begins with a stunning shot of a slash of red light illuminating just Sam’s eyes in a dark, blood-streaked flat, but the first hour drags due to Gillan’s mistaking rigidity for seriousness.
The script’s tone, co-written by director Papushado and Ehud Lavski, is all over the place, requiring ridiculous lines (“You haven’t touched your milkshake”) and clichés (weapons referred to as “clean broomsticks”) to be delivered with perfect honesty. And the urgency with which Gunpowder Milkshake wants to prove its feminist credentials (Sam clarifying that she has no problem killing women, even though the film never explicitly asks her to; the librarians loading her up with weapons hidden in Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Virginia Woolf books; a villain complaining about his daughters) feels insincere, given that the majority of the film’s top-line crew ar
Between the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji franchises, Gillan is now an action star. So why does she spend Gunpowder Milkshake doing an ineffective Uma Thurman impression instead of cultivating her own take on Sam? The film opens with a beautiful shot of a slash of red light illuminating only Sam’s eyes in a dark, blood-spattered apartment, but then its first hour drags because of the way Gillan mistakes stiffness for seriousness.
It doesn’t help that the tone of the script, co-written by director Papushado and Ehud Lavski, is all of over the place, demanding that goofy lines (“You haven’t touched your milkshake”) and phrases (guns referred to as “clean broomsticks”) be uttered with complete candor. And the urgency with which Gunpowder Milkshake wants to prove its feminist bona fides (Sam clarifying that she has no problems killing women, although the film never actually asks her to; the librarians loading her up with weapons hidden in books by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Virginia Woolf; a villain complaining about his daughters) feels insincere, given that most of the film’s top-line crew are men.
Those who are ready to overlook the tedium will find some thrills in Gunpowder Milkshake. A fight in a dentist’s office takes its time capturing Gillan’s body, from her clumsily efficient flailing to her split-second problem-solving, with a gun and a scalpel attached to Sam’s hands as she whirls, spins, and takes on three baddies. Emily sits on Sam’s lap and assists her in driving around a parking garage, speeding, drifting, and reversing away from two pursuing cars, during a well-paced car chase.
Will they be able to redeem a weird finale that unnecessarily absolves Sam of any culpability while still leaving room for a sequel? They don’t have any. Headey’s half-smirk, Bassett’s irritated line deliveries, Gugino’s set jaw as she stands behind a mounted machine gun, and Yeoh’s effortlessly cool eyepatch-wearing will have to suffice if Gunpowder Milkshake fails.
Gunpowder Milkshake is now streaming on Netflix.