Samantha (Karen Gillan) has been an assassin for The Firm ever since her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) abandoned her in a diner 15 years ago. Now an adult, she takes her assignments from her handler, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), but things go wrong when a job results in the death of mob boss McAlester’s (Ralph Ineson) son.
Consequently, Sam’s targeted by faceless goons and along the way becomes the reluctant guardian to eight-year-old Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman), after moustache-twirling Nathan feeds her to the wolves and forces her to go it alone. Sam seeks help from a trio of librarians (Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett) who are actually an underground female-only organisation that hide weapons inside books, but, sadly, this trio of talented actresses don’t get to show their skills until the climax.
Gillan’s character is soon attired in an orange satin bowling jacket, but despite sporting an iconic cosplay-ready look, the Scottish actress is uncharacteristically uncharismatic as Sam. That said, her physical performance rivals Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde (2017), as she runs up walls, bounces off ceilings, and kicks ass in a way that makes her seem so invincible it’s hard to suspend one’s belief.
The screenplay isn’t big on details or context, which makes it hard to care for any of these characters. Gunpowder Milkshake is more concerned about looking good than in making sense. Every shot is too meticulously assembled and too stylised for its own good. Fight after fight happens with little downtime in between, and some of the stunts are so ridiculous they border on Final Destination-style slapstick.
While the action sequences are overlong there are some inventive touches. One highlight is Sam taking on a group of merceries with paralysed arms, with a knife and gun taped into her hands. But Gunpowder Milkshake offers further proof that David Leitch’s (John Wick, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) brand of screen violence can be imitated but never matched or surpasses. Scenes that should be thrilling becoming boring, like you’re watching a 1990s video game cut-scene, with anonymous bad guy after bad guy coming after our red-haired heroine. It’s less like watching action and more like being bombarded with it.
Gunpowder Milkshake is also devoid of any sex appeal and romance, for better or worse. There are thankfully no fight scenes in skimpy lingerie and no sexy leather catsuits being worn, but there’s sadly little personality. It’s a relief for an action thriller to not get side-tracked by sex scenes and romantic subplots, but there’s nothing here to replace them. Don’t expect to learn much about these women other than their fighting techniques.
The lack of emotion and chemistry within the cast is genuinely surprising, considering the pedigree of those involved. Perhaps a lack of emotion and heart would’ve been less of a problem if it was funnier. While it wisely doesn’t take itself too seriously, everything about it lacks humour or pathos. Sam unexpectedly becoming a maternal figure herself should have been a ball to watch, but she’s instead tied to a kid who’s surprisingly okay with all the extreme violence happening around her. The script is begging for an injection of wit and vigour, along the lines of Baby Driver (2017).
The marketing’s female empowerment angle is lost amidst such a bombardment of violence. Written, directed, produced, edited, and scored by men, Gunpowder Milkshake has little to say about the female experience. These women don’t interact in a particularly realistic way either. Little touches like Gugino’s character taking her hair down to shoot a gun just goes to show the male gaze happening behind the camera. Any sense of camaraderie between the three librarians is thanks to the acting talent involved, and less about the script—which only scratches the surface of its characters.
Gunpowder Milkshake would also have benefitted from stronger world-building. It’s unclear how much control The Firm has over this world, and who’s even a member. It seems like everyone Sam meets (asides from young Emily) is involved in the criminal underground, and everywhere a character goes there’s a handy box to surrender your weapon in. Even the dentist has a bulletproof swivel chair!
Directed and co-written by Israeli filmmaker Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves), this enticing ‘John Wick with chicks’ setup fails to hit the spot. But despite its faults, there’s no doubt Gunpowder Milkshake at least looks amazing. Set in a comic-book world where the laws of physics have been thrown out the window, production designer David Scheunemann evokes everything from 1950s pulp fiction, 1980s-style neon-lit B Movies, and modern punk comic-books. But it all suffers from being incredibly derivative, with obvious comparisons to drawn between John Wick (2014) and Atomic Blonde. It even has some DNA of Sin City (2005) and Quentin Tarantino, with nods to Wanted (2008) and Taken (2008). And because we all know the drill, Gunpowder Milkshake desperately needed a surprising plot twist that never comes.
FRANCE • GERMANY • USA | 2021 | 114 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH • RUSSIAN
Cast & Crew
director: Navot Papushado.
writers: Navot Papushado & Ehud Lavski.
starring: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett & Paul Giamatti.