Gunpowder Milkshake comes to us from writer/director Navot Papushado, reputedly the first feature horror filmmaker in Israel’s history. Here in the States, alas, his two feature films to date (namely Rabies and Big Bad Wolves) have been seen by pretty much nobody outside of Tribeca. Yet here he is with an action film from Netflix (alongside StudioCanal and STX Films), featuring the likes of Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, and Paul Giamatti.
Yeah, this looks like my kind of crazy. Let’s go.
Karen Gillan plays the lead character of Sam, with Freya Allen on hand for a flashback. She’s the daughter of Scarlet (Lena Headey), though the two have been on strained terms ever since Ma basically dropped off the face of the planet about 15 years back. The kicker: Both women are professional assassins, working for a shadowy cabal of high-powered men known only as “The Firm”.
Long story short, the plot kicks off with two missions going pear-shaped and far more lethal than Sam was initially prepared for. With the first fuckup, Sam unknowingly murders the son of Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson), who just happens to be a high-powered individual on good business standing with The Firm. With the second fuckup (again, this is a long and complicated story short), Sam blows up a ransom scenario in which she loses a shit-ton of The Firm’s money and gains unwitting custody of a young would-be hostage (Emily, played by Chloe Coleman).
So now Sam is on the outs with The Firm, running and fighting for her life while also trying to protect an eight-year-old (sorry, eight-and-three-quarters) girl. With nowhere else to go, Sam turns to her mother for backup. And that’s when the bodies really start dropping.
Now for the obvious question: What’s up with that title? Well, milkshakes are established early on as a motif for the film, primarily representing a sweet and childlike respite. The milkshakes aren’t literally made with gunpowder, of course, but the two words conflict and coexist in a way that’s nicely descriptive of the film. By design, it’s sweet and colorful and destructive all at once.
The whole movie has a distinctly heightened feel to it, yet there are certain design touches that keep it noticeably grounded. For instance, while the movie quite certainly takes place in the modern day, everyone uses flip-phones with tactile number keys and there’s not a single glossy smartphone in sight. There’s a brightly-lit candy-colored neon phantasmagoria in a bowling alley. There’s a run-down apartment complex with distinguished art deco flourishes. There’s an old-fashioned library so vast and fancifully old-fashioned that it might’ve looked right at home in the castle from freaking Beauty and the Beast. And let’s not forget the illicit underground health clinic with pristine walls that literally glow white.
Yes, this is very clearly a world of assassins with its own internal laws, lords, lingo, locations, and so on. The obvious comparison would be the Continental of the John Wick franchise, or perhaps the Hotel Artemis of its own namesake film. But where this movie noticeably falls short of those other two (yes, even Hotel Artemis, that pale and inferior knockoff) is in the lack of accountability. Not once, but twice in the film’s opening half, we see spaces where weapons are expressly prohibited. Yet we see characters bringing — and even using! — weapons in these safe zones, with no consequences whatsoever. There’s never even a threat of consequence or any idea of what consequences there might be. Terrible world-building.
On a similar note, there’s the matter of the library I alluded to earlier. Remember in John Wick: Chapter 2 how all the weapons and guns were coded in terms of a wine tasting? Or that one scene from Baby Driver in which all the weapons were discussed by way of meat innuendoes? For this film, it’s books.
Guns and various useful items are concealed in hollowed-out books. In theory, the various literary references are cute and the hollowed-out books make for a nicely unique visual. It also brings an intellectual high-class touch to this world of cutthroats (see also: The aforementioned “wine tasting” scene from John Wick: Chapter 2). In practice… well, I suspect there’s a reason why the film never shows this method of delivery for anything larger than a pistol or a knife. If any of the numerous professional killers in the world of this movie ever needed a shotgun or a grenade launcher or any kind of rifle, they’d be SOL. Again, that’s a HUGE world-building fail.
Still, nothing endears me to an action movie like a whole bunch of innovative fight scenes I could never find anywhere else. And what do we have in this movie?
- An action set piece in which the hero can’t use her arms
- A cat-and-mouse car “chase” set entirely in an underground parking garage
- A gold ingot used as a lethal weapon
- A gun with a bayonet used as a throwing knife
This is the kind of madcap creativity that I live for. And when it’s presented by way of action scenes that are elegantly choreographed and cleanly edited without cuts every two seconds… Oh, yeah. This is exactly the kind of carnage that I want and expect from a work of action cinema. Sure, it’s not on par with anything from Team John Wick, but what is?
And then we have the central theme of mothers and daughters. Specifically, we’ve got Sam with her blood relative mother, but there’s also Sam with her new surrogate daughter. The parallels and similarities between these two relationships are contrived as all hell, but they get the point across that Scarlet made a ton of poor choices in life and in parenting, and now Sam is repeating so many of those mistakes with Emily. Yet there’s also a moment in which Sam checks to make sure that Emily is okay, then Scarlet runs the exact same check with the exact same phrasing on Sam. And in both cases, it comes off as purely unintentional. That’s a genuinely sweet little subconscious connection.
Moreover, Scarlet ran out on Sam when she was still a kid, and Sam is directly responsible for the death of Emily’s father. Both cases are a clear (albeit extremely heightened) example of a common experience in parenting: When a parent royally fucks up and their undeserving kid suffers because of it and the parent would give anything to take it back. In both cases, Scarlet and Sam have to carry their guilt and hope they can make it up to their kid someday, while Sam and Emily have to ask if they can find it in their hearts to forgive.
Because Sam is the generational midpoint here, she finds herself on both sides of this conflict, at once learning how to forgive while learning how to earn forgiveness. The two inform each other in a way that advances her development beautifully. Even better, the themes of forgiveness and guilt are a cornerstone of any decent film about criminals and/or killers, and that dovetails with the family angle in a way that’s singular, elegant, and sincerely heartfelt.
That said, the film sadly comes up just a little short with regards to the feminist angle. Yes, the feminist streak is heavily implied with regards to the badass women fighting against hordes of male villains and cannon fodder. But then the main villain (again, that’s Ralph Ineson’s character) gets this whole speech about his daughters and how he considers himself a feminist and the whole thing simply collapses. But even without that failed explicit attempt at making a feminist point, there’s something implicit about the presentation that simply doesn’t work.
It’s not a thing I can really put my finger on. I can only tell you to put Gunpowder Milkshake next to Birds of Prey and Black Widow. Sure, all three of them are badass female-driven action movies, but one of these things is clearly not like the others. I can’t say exactly what it is that a female director brings to the table, but it’s essential to the point where any female-driven movie can’t be complete without it.
In that big villain speech, Ineson’s character says something to the effect of “I love women, but I can’t understand them.” He opines that he feels like a stranger in his own house full of daughters. Maybe that’s the reason why putting a male director in charge of a female-driven movie doesn’t quite connect.
Even so, Ineson brings more than enough gravitas to sell the villain of the piece. We’ve also got Paul Giamatti on hand as the mouthpiece of The Firm, and he’s a pleasure as always. Chloe Coleman is a promising young talent, Karen Gillan anchors the film admirably, and of course Lena Headey is playing squarely within her wheelhouse. Kudos are also due to the trio of Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino — it’s always a big deal when any one of them grace the screen, and I applaud the filmmakers for giving three older women (by Hollywood standards) their due. All three of them are given their chance to kick ass and dominate the screen, and I love that.
I’m on the fence about Gunpowder Milkshake. It’s hard to get past the incompetent world-building, and the movie fell short of its goals as a feminist statement. Yet the actors are all delightful, the central themes of family and forgiveness are all compelling, the production design mixed old with modern in a nicely satisfying way, and the action set pieces more than met my expectations.
With all of that said, I tend to go easier on streaming releases because they don’t cost anything to watch (assuming you already have an account on the necessary streaming service), and there’s less of a time commitment as opposed to going out and watching a film at your local multiplex. What’s more, I’m famously lenient with films — especially action films — that take a kind of maniacal glee in showing me something that no other filmmaker would dare to dream of. (To wit: There’s a reason why Shoot ‘Em Up, Drive Angry, Anna and the Apocalypse, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are still among my personal all-time favorites.)
On those grounds, I’ll give Gunpowder Milkshake a tentative recommendation. If you already have a Netflix account, go ahead and check it out.