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I can pinpoint the exact point where Navot Papushado's Gunpowder Milkshake loses me. It’s a scene early in the second act, and features a seedy criminal doctor character named Dr. Ricky (Michael Smiley) making plans to ambush deadly assassin Sam (Karen Gillan) – who has been betrayed and marked for death. Scheming with a trio of goons, Ricky explains that his plan is to stab her in both shoulders with a ridiculous injection device, promising “she’ll start losing control of her arms” and then “after sixty seconds or so she’s a sitting duck.”
The movie having established that Dr. Ricky is the kind of doctor who experiments in making his own brand of nitrous oxide, my assumption first hearing this exposition was that Sam’s arms would go numb as an initial side effect before the drug either knocked her out or knocked her for a loop… but, silly me, I was thinking too logically. In truth, it’s is merely an arrangement for a fight sequence in which the protagonist has a gun and a scalpel taped to her hands and she makes her way down a hallway majestically flailing her arms, kicking, and flipping while avoiding enemy gun fire.
It’s actually a cool bit of action, albeit one that doesn’t spray nearly as much blood as it could on the pristine, illuminated white walls – but what unfortunately stands out more is how it represents the movie’s greatest problems. The emphasis on style is developed through the sacrifice of substance; the movie is far too concerned with being a dictionary definition of “cool” that it fails to offer anything that is remotely satisfying. It’s bland tropes stacked together with a fresh coat of paint, and fits into the special club of bad Quentin Tarantino knock-offs right alongside titles like The Boondock Saints and Smokin’ Aces.
Written by Navot Papushado and Ehud Lavski, Gunpowder Milkshake introduces audiences to the aforementioned Sam as a hit-woman whose was life changed when she was 12 and she was abandoned by her mother (Lena Headey) at an assassin-friendly diner. In the present, she finds herself in hot water with her handler/father figure Nathan (Paul Giamatti) and The Firm – the shadowy organization for which she works – when a mission gets a bit hairier than intended, but she is given the opportunity to redeem herself by recovering a large sum of money that has been stolen.
What turns the situation on its head is that Sam discovers the reason for the cash being taken: so a father can pay off a ransom for his kidnapped daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Having fatally shot the dad before he can explain what is going on, the trained killer opts to take on the responsibility of rescuing the girl herself – betraying The Firm in the process.
Sam and Emily together go on the run from hordes of generic goons, but surviving means finding help and resources. For this they turn to the sweet and kind Madeleine (Carla Gugino), the judicious Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and embittered Anna May (Angela Bassett): a trio of one-dimensional characters who operate out of an armory called The Library – where all of the equipment is stored in books – and who were friends with Sam’s mother before she disappeared.
Gunpowder Milkshake answers the question “What if John Wick was a bad movie?”
With its world-building and eccentricities, Gunpowder Milkshake feels like a movie that was made with the attitude of “hold my beer” following a screening of John Wick – and has the same stereotypical consequences that typically result from that memed phrase. Between The Firm and the librarians and the guns-free diner and more, the movie makes all kinds of attempts at creating its own kind of special assassin society and deep canon, but every time it comes across as goofy and/or forced. The Library isn’t just a bad imitation of The Continental from the Keanu Reeves franchise, but also no matter how many ways I look at it, there is no explaining why the Librarians believe that storing guns in bulky hardcover books that have had their pages carved out is in any way a good idea. It gives the impression of a thought process that concludes namedropping literature on screen makes a movie smart. That impression is incorrect.
It’s fun to watch Karen Gillan work, but Gunpowder Milkshake provides little for her to work with.
Purely as an action movie, it provides a solid platform for Karen Gillan to demonstrate some serious ass-kicking skills – featuring a lot more physicality than what’s in her Marvel movies or the recent Jumanji sequels – and she’s convincing as formidable watching the way she moves. What the star can’t be blamed for is the dialogue that should have been rewritten as soon as it was read aloud by a professional actor for the first time; paper thin motivations that fail to establish even the slightest hint of emotional investment; and all around lazy characterization that reduces not only Gillan’s role, but the entire cast to essentially be perfunctory aspects of the uninspired plot (the personalities are so underdeveloped that everyone might as well be named like dwarves in Snow White). And it should go without saying all of the members of the talented ensemble are capable of far more than anything this production offers.
Appreciating the stylistic vision of Gunpowder Milkshake will only get you so far.
Gunpowder Milkshake is certainly not a film that could be accused of being unaware of what it is, but it’s all so forced that it is less a case of tongue-in-cheek and more tongue-through-cheek. It’s exhausting. There is a talented directorial eye at work, but the movie seems so obsessed with trying to snare a devoted cult and inspire convention cosplay that it throws every stylistic idea it has at the silver screen in lieu of any reason or purpose, and it leaves the material only functioning on the most basic aesthetic level. That fact most certainly won’t stop it from gaining some fans – but nowhere near as many as it would have had with a greater emphasis on substance and fresh ideas than flash and homage.