This female-focused action-thriller features stylish visuals and a stellar cast, but it also happily follows in other footsteps.
July 15, 2021
Cutesy name, likeable stars, stylised brutality, a familiar revenge scenario: blend them all together, and that's Gunpowder Milkshake. There's one particular ingredient that's missing from this action-thriller's recipe, though, and its absence is surprising — because much about the film feels like it has jumped from the pages of a comic book. That's one of the movie's best traits, in fact. The world already has too many comics-to-cinema adaptations, but although Gunpowder Milkshake doesn't stem from a graphic novel, it actually looks the part. Its precise framing and camera placement, hyper-vibrant colours and love of neon could've easily been printed in inky hues on paper, then splattered across the screen like the blood and bullets the feature sprays again and again. Writer/director Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves) and cinematographer Michael Seresin (War for the Planet of the Apes) have made a visually appealing film, and a movie with evident aesthetic flair. All that gloss is paired with a generic assassin storyline, however, and a half-baked feminist thrust. It's Sin City meets John Wick but gender-flipped, except that the Kill Bill movies and Atomic Blonde have been there and done that.
Gunpowder Milkshake is entertaining enough, but largely in a mechanical way. Its look hits the mark, with every colour popping a shade or two brighter than might otherwise be expected. Its action choreography is impressive, albeit nowhere near as kinetic as the pictures it is patently aping. With Avengers: Endgame's Karen Gillan leading the charge, Game of Thrones' Lena Headey playing her on-screen mother, the impressive trio of Angela Bassett (Black Panther), Michelle Yeoh (Last Christmas) and Carla Gugino (a Sin City alum) also featuring, and child actor Chloe Coleman (Big Little Lies) holding her own, the movie's key women all do what's asked of them. And, when it comes to female-fronted action fare, there's no such thing as too much. But Gunpowder Milkshake's cast is also only tasked with navigating an inescapably clear-cut scenario, and the film's girl-power credentials are only skin deep, too. The focus on motherhood couldn't be more stereotypical, and the movie undercuts its empowering vibe by using its older women far too sparingly.
Papushado and co-scribe Ehud Lavski (a feature first-timer) attempt to complicate their narrative, as opening narration explains, but the basics are hardly complex. As skilled killer Sam (Gillan) notes, she works for a group of men called The Firm, cleaning up its messes with her deadly prowess. It's an inherited gig, in a way. Fifteen years earlier, she was a fresh-faced teen (Freya Allan, The Witcher) with a mum, Scarlet, who did the same thing. Then her mother abandoned her after a diner shootout, leaving Sam to fend herself — and, to ultimately get her jobs from Nathan (Paul Giamatti, Billions), one of The Firm's flunkies. It's on just that kind of gig that Sam kills the son of a rival crime hotshot (Ralph Ineson, Chernobyl), and he wants revenge. Soon, her employers are also on her trail, after she takes another assignment in an attempt to sort out her first problem, then ends up trying to save eight-year-old Emily (Coleman) from violent kidnappers.
Bassett, Yeoh and Gugino play librarians, and that term could be capitalised as a code name. They're surrounded by books, but they're also assassins themselves who trade in supplies for their fellow hitwomen. Running their business in an eye-catching dome-shaped Berlin building — which is where the film was shot, although it never mentions where it is set — they basically oversee Gunpowder Milkshake's equivalent of John Wick's The Continental. And, they have links to Scarlet, and to Sam's childhood, but they're used as weight and texture rather than given meaty parts. It's almost unforgivable for a movie that's all about formidable ladies to waste Bassett, Yeoh and Gugino in such minor roles, in fact. Again, they do all that's asked of them. They do it well, obviously. Still, they're both the most interesting aspect of the narrative and the least utilised.
A secret society of killer women that camouflage their strength behind their knowledge, pass down skills through generations, and blush to no one in a male-dominated realm? Now that's a great premise. A kick-ass heroine who grew up with mummy issues, but now must care for a girl who also doesn't have a mother, all while actually reconnecting with her own and simultaneously laying waste to villainous men? That's clearly far more standard. Even when it's at its most engaging, Gunpowder Milkshake always leaves viewers wishing that it'd taken another path and spent more time with characters it mostly leaves in the background — unsurprisingly given what it pushes to the fore, and what it lets sit on the side.
Wanting Bassett, Yeoh and Gugino to play bigger parts isn't a criticism of Gillan, or of her time with Headey and Coleman — even if cracking the facade of a stone-cold killer by getting them palling around with a kid is now a genre cliche (Coleman also had a similar role in espionage comedy My Spy). Gillan takes to her character with stony efficiency. That too is a trope — see: oh-so-many movies in your streaming platform of choice's "strong female lead" category — but she's been doing it swimmingly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. What might've served her better, however, is a female filmmaker behind the lens. For all the style that Papushado brandishes, he's lacks the same fun, frenetic and fluid touch Cathy Yan gifted 2020's Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), and the same poignancy and smarts that Cate Shortland has given this year's Black Widow. Of course, that's the thing about making a movie that looks like a comic book flick, and that also tries to set up its own franchise, too: it's always going to earn and suffer from those comparisons.
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