I’ll give points to the latest from Israeli director/co-writer Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves) for being big, loud, and splashy (mostly in hues of blood red), but I wish there had been something more substantial going on with the screenplay of Gunpowder Milkshake beyond gleefully ripping off Quentin Tarantino (specifically the Kill Bill movies), with visuals borrowed from Zach Snyder (oh, the slow motion is righteous here). Is it uplifting and a total blast to see a team of all-female assassins go ballistic against a crime syndicate after one of their own? Hell yes, it is. But in a film that leans into the idea of a sisterhood coming together like family to protect an 8-year-old girl, I wanted to feel something aside from sympathy pains every time someone gets punched or stabbed or shot.
Karen Gillan (The Guardians of the Galaxy movies; the recent Jumanji films) plays hitwoman Sam, who was abandoned at the age of 12 by her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), who was on the run for killing the wrong person on the job. Scarlet left Sam in the hands of a group called The Firm, led by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), who raises Sam to be every bit the killer her mother was. But in the process, Sam has grown a little dead inside, partly because it’s required of any killer for hire and partly because she grew up feeling unwanted by her mother. But like daughter like mother, Sam ends up killing the wrong target on a job, the son of crime syndicate boss Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson, from The Witch), who now wants Sam not just dead but tortured in the worst possible ways before her death. Nathan is attempting to smooth things over with McAlester when he gives Sam another job—to recover stolen money, taken from The Firm by David (Samuel Anderson). When Sam finds him, she discovers that he was forced to steal the money as ransom for daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman), but Sam shoots him thinking he’s a threat, and so she must drag him to a shady surgeon (the great Michael Smiley) while she goes to recover the girl.
Sam eventually gets the girl but loses the money, making her the target of many criminal elements, including The Firm and Nathan, forcing her to seek help from a group of her mother’s old friends, known as The Librarians (Angela Bassett as Anna May, Michelle Yeoh as Florence, and Carla Gugino as Madeleine), who sell illegal weapons and other supplies to assassins, all hidden in books around an expansive and beautifully art-directed library. From this point on, the film becomes a blur of gunfire, dramatic lighting, needle-drop music cues, blood spray, and bodies flying through the air with gymnast-level cartwheeling. As a feast for the eyes (something I never outright discard as a plus), Gunpowder Milkshake is really something special. But when you pack in a list of actresses of this caliber, you can’t just have them look sternly as they fire guns and expect an audience to feel much of anything. There are attempts at humor, emotion and civility, but most of that lands with a dull thud because it’s clearly not a priority in the filmmaker’s mind.
Gillan is a highly capable actor, but if this were the only film you’d ever seen her in, you wouldn’t know it. She’s meant to be someone who has lost a great deal of her soul because of her work, but she comes across as incapable of expressing any emotion beyond low-burn anger or outright rage. The rest of the primary cast likely have a bit more experience making something out of nothing (or very little), so they fare better, but the material isn’t doing them any favors either. Gunpowder Milkshake still has its moments of fun. The production design, lighting, and fight choreography are all special in their own right, but the whole bloody affair is just missing a heart and a bit of soul. It’s a close call, which almost makes it more frustrating. But with a cast that strong, it’s tough to say no.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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