A film review by Craig J. Koban July 27, 2021

GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE jj
 

2021, R, 114 mins.

Karen Gillan as Sam  /  Carla Gugino as Madeleine  /  Lena Headey as Scarlet  /  Michelle Yeoh as Florence  /  Angela Bassett as Anna May  /  Paul Giamatti as Nathan

Written and directed by Navot Papushado  /  Written by Ehud Lavski and Papushado

ORIGINAL FILM

The preposterously titled new Netflix action thriller GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE is - to take a page out of the PULP FICTION vernacular playbook - not quite five dollar shake good.  More like a cheaper, less flavourful, and forgettable discount beverage way down on the genre menu.  

This Navot Papushado directed affair is kind of like a hodgepodge of JOHN WICK meets THE KINGSMAN, but with a squadron of kick-ass women leading the murder-death-kill charge.  There's nothing inherently wrong with copying these templates and adding in a gender swap (steal from the best, I say!), and GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE most definitely has its fair share of propulsive blood curdling action sequences to appease fans, not to mention a slick and vibrant aesthetic sheen and a stellar cast of ladies assembled here.  The main issue with the film, though, is that it's high on style and very, very low on substance, leaving the whole enterprise feeling disappointingly hollow in the end.   

That, and the makers here squander the instantly likeable Karen Gillan something fierce.  She was so simultaneously alluring and charming in the two JUMANJI reboot films, but here she rarely is provided an opportunity to utilize her natural gifts as an on-screen comedian (on top of her thoroughly credible action hero skills) while playing this film's one note, one woman killing machine.  That's a large shame, because GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE all but stymies her ample charisma and saddles her with a stoic and sullen female assassin for hire that never really commands our interest.  In the film she plays Sam, who has taken up as an adult the same line of work as her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey, only 14 years Gillan's senior in real life) before her: trained killer.  Sam was abandoned by her mom as a teenager, and years later she took up the family practice, so to speak, and works for the mysterious organization dubbed "The Firm," overseen by her boss and handler in Nathan (Paul Giamatti).  Sam has never forgotten or forgiven Scarlet for leaving her, which is probably why she has devoted her pain and frustrations into her job.  And she's ruthlessly good at it. 

 

 

Sam's relatively stable occupational life gets upended when a mission with some faulty intel goes sideways quite fast, leading to the accidental murder of the Firm's rival boss' only son, which means that Sam's place and standing with her own bosses is in jeopardy.  Nathan provides a clean up assignment, of sorts, for Sam, which requires her to nab a sought after suitcase filled with stolen money, but along the way things get really hairy for her when she shoots the wrong man and discovers that his kidnapped daughter in Emily (Chloe Coleman) is still alive and needing protection.  Still processing her own mother and abandonment issues, Sam takes it upon herself to take Emily in and protect her, which is unfortunately against Nathan's explicit wishes and orders.  Now, Sam and Emily become wanted women in the gangland world, which results in her seeking sanctuary and help from a secret fraternity of librarians - Florence (Michelle Yeoh), Ann May (Angela Bassett) and Madeleine (Carla Gugino) - who have amassed quite an arsenal of weapons, all of which are stashed in classic books on their shelves.  Inevitably, all of these bad ass women band to fend off the unending barrage of evil men that are coming to kill Sue and Emily. 

Of the things that mostly work in GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE it would easily be the core relationship between the cold blooded killer in Sam and the sweet and innocent young child in Emily.  They find themselves at an uneasy crossroads in their respective lives.  We learn in a decent introductory flashback scene how Sam and her own mother were robbed of any type of a normal family dynamic, which helps to precipitate Sam's yearning to become a surrogate mother for Emily, despite the inherent dangers that both face.  Also, the Israeli born Papushado has a field day with crafting the bright hued and neon tinted visual tapestry of this film's world (it's like cotton candy-ified JOHN WICK), and his team-up with cinematographer Michael Seresin scores large dividends in terms of splashing the screen with a pop art meets film noir veneer.  GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE's inviting imagery doesn't hide the fact that this is a brutally gory thrill ride, and this film most assuredly works for and rightfully earns its R-rating.  But as a vivacious work of pure flamboyance that aims to please the eyes, GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE a fantastically immersive visual treat, to be sure.   

The action beats here - as mentioned - are stupendously realized as well, and on a level of sheer bone crunching, fist smashing, and bullets spewing mayhem, Papushado certainly delivers on the goods in providing multiple opportunities for Sam (and her fellow female warriors) to display they ample and lethal abilities.  There's a superbly engineered sequence pitting Sam against three Firm goons in a bowling alley, and an even more inspired subplot involving her getting toxins injected into her arms (don't ask) that forces her to come up with some quick witted ways to defend herself without using them.  Of course, the other supporting stars get their individual moments to shine as well, and watching Yeoh, Bassett, Gugino, and Headey get opportunities for serious comeuppance of the squads of men that try to wrong them is undeniably entertaining.  Yeoh in particular has attained such a legendary status in the annals of martial arts cinema that seeing her at 58 never seeming to miss a beat on screen is a bona fide treat.  She does things against a vile marauder with a chain that that's on point for its adrenalized awesomeness.  

Having said all of this, I just simply didn't connect with this material as much as I was hoping.  The liberal borrowing from the JOHN WICK story playbook here is, to be blunt, kind of stale and lacking in inspiration.  Both films involve legendary assassins having to defend themselves from wave after way of attackers on both sides while trying to find safety in some form of neutral ground territory (in WICK we had The Continental and here we have the aforementioned library). Those similarities didn't bother me as much as the fact that GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE simply doesn't make full usage of its sizable female talent.  I like the cool concept of gun touting librarians and I love the head strong conviction that the actresses embody here.  Alas, there's a repetitiveness to the wanton violence on display throughout the film, and more often than not these actresses just become puppets to the orchestrated chaos on screen.  Their defining characteristics are that they're extremely good at barbarically killing men, and not much else.  There is nothing wrong with having women substituted in for men in action cinema (more please), but GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE doesn't invest in these personalities at all, and seeing the great actresses here just shoot and blow things up for two hours gets pretty numbing after awhile.   

If the makers of this film wanted to prove that they could make a good looking, but empty calorie and ultimately disposable action picture with women slotted in for men...well...mission accomplished.  But, shouldn't the aim for genre inclusion be at a higher qualitative level?  There's an off-putting simplicity to the scripting here (women = noble, just, and good, whereas men = salivating lunatics and bad), which isn't the worst rub (women in movies like this have been delegated to the sidelines as damsels in distress for far too long).  No, the real dilemma with GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE is that it's all eyegasmic spectacle and cartoonishly over the top sound and fury that's lacking in any sizable wit, imagination, or substance.  By the time the end credits rolled by I wasn't left in a state of yearning for a sequel (which this film shamelessly tries to set up), but rather a whole different action film altogether that didn't squander its female stars. 

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