Gunpowder Milkshake, 2021.
Directed by Navot Papushado.
Starring Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Freya Allan, Chloe Coleman, Ralph Ineson, Samuel Anderson, Michael Smiley, and Adam Nagaitis.
Three generations of women fight back against those who could take everything from them.
Gunpowder Milkshake is an adrenaline injection of feminist-driven action living up to its absurd title. Starring Karen Gillan as the often stonefaced and no-nonsense assassin Samantha, one set piece boasts such a creative fight sequence that when it was over, I couldn’t help but pause the movie stunned. Without spoiling the specifics, this particular sequence restricts certain physical capabilities of Samantha to the point where she has to rig her body a certain way using objects within the vicinity and to rely on the assistance of the eight and three-quarters old Emily (Chloe Coleman, who was actually quite funny and last year’s spy comedy My Spy). Naturally, what follows is gruesome and bloody, but you almost don’t even notice the damage being done from being too busy reveling in the imagination on display. It’s one thing when violence is visceral and bone-shattering (something Samantha also excels at), but marveling at those things in tandem with demented and joyous creativity yields something extra, the proverbial movie magic.
Now, I don’t want to say that co-writer and director Navot Papushado (collaborating with Ehud Lavski on the screenplay) have made a one-scene movie because it’s far from that, but nothing before and after reaches the heights of that joy and ecstasy. None of this is to say that Gunpowder Milkshake is a bad movie either, just that the filmmakers raised their own bar high and then freefall into enjoyable mediocrity (your mileage will vary depending on your reaction to the overt patriarchal message that feels somewhere between overly blunt and clever). I’m also not trying to say that the climactic battle is a letdown (there’s loads of impressive fight choreography and start work, with Karen Gillan leading the charge for what’s easily one of her most fun characters to watch), but that maybe it could have used another modifying gimmick allowing for some more imaginative freedom when it comes to the bodies piling up.
Fortunately, the rest of Gunpowder Milkshake is just plain odd in a fascinating manner, taking place in its own version of modern reality. Samantha was born into (Game of Thrones alumni Lena Headey plays her mother) and works for the crime syndicate dubbed The Firm (which really just makes one think of the Tom Cruise movie every time it’s uttered, but I digress), where a rogue accountant has stolen a bunch of money. At the request of Nathan (Paul Giamatti), the man that raised her in the absence of her mother, Scarlet, Samantha is enlisted to kill the defector and retrieve the cash. Naturally, this proves to be difficult as a rival faction has other ideas, and Samantha suddenly finds herself protecting the aforementioned toddler, Emily. In short, the routine mission at a nearby bowling alley winds up with Samantha splitting heads with the bowling balls themselves.
The world-building here also seems ripped from a videogame (at times, it feels like Navot Papushado pitched the project as so, faced rejection, and then decided to turn this into a popcorn action movie for STX before Netflix bought the distribution rights), with a library tended to by some legendary screen women (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino) that technically rent out books, albeit ones that have unique firearms inside each one. Let’s just say they are also much more than glorified vendors, each getting their own distinct weapons for gloriously gory moments. Taking a page from John Wick (to give you an idea of how much that series is going on to inspire other movies, this is the second one this week I’ve watched that is borrowing elements while searching for its own identity), there is also a diner (a riff on the Continental hotel) where the waitresses search and strip patrons of whatever guns they are packing.
Much of Gunpowder Milkshake also plays out with atmospheric mystery and mood lighting, as viewers wonder why Scarlet left Samantha behind, details behind betrayals, more about the opposing criminals, and more about this underbelly of assassins. It would be correct to say that the movie flows from one action sequence to the next, but there’s also a surprising amount of downtime in between them while still inside deadly hot zones. This film assuredly cares about these characters and the theme at hand regarding women rising up, although it never gets there for meaningful emotional impact. However, it is deliriously mad and idiosyncratic at just about every turn, even when the bullets fly. Story gripes aside, the brutal physicality of Karen Gillan’s performance is more than enough reason to watch Gunpowder Milkshake, and there is some curiosity as to where it goes from here. Just don’t be surprised if you never reach the same level of enthusiasm following the ingenious hospital fight.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com