Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)
Revenge is best served ice cold.
We are very much living in a post-Wick world. Gunpowder Milkshake is not the first film to try and borrow some of the cultural and aesthetic energy from the 2014 action gamechanger from Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and it won’t be the last. Is it as good? As any of the Wick flicks? No, but it’s fun in its own right.
Our hitwoman heroine is Sam (Karen Gillan), who — as almost always happens in this sort of thing — finds herself hunted by enemies and her former employers when a hit goes wrong, and she’s left trying to protect an eight-year-old girl, Emily (Chloe Coleman), after she inadvertently guns down the tyke’s father. Quickly realizing she’s up against it and even her prodigious powers of pew pew may not see her through the night, Sam finds herself calling on her estranged mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), and her girl gang of recognizable badasses: Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Madeleine (Carla Gugino). These lethal ladies provide support of both the “emotional” and “fire” varieties as gang bosses Nathan (Paul Giamatti) and Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson) unleash the hounds.
The whole thing takes place in a deliberately retro, highly stylized urban milieu that is redolent of that “some time in the 20th century” vibe that you can find everywhere from Brazil (1985) to Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City (2005) to Streets of Fire (1984) to, well, John Wick (2014). I personally am charmed that so many action movies are embracing the fact that action movies are, with a few noteworthy exceptions, fantasies that have more in common with Harry Potter than actual combat; if your physics and tactics aren’t limited by the real world, why should your production design be?
So, how’s the action?
Middling to good, and it gets better as it goes along. Director Navot Papushado, Big Bad Wolves (2013), who co-wrote the screenplay with Ehud Lavski, has an eye for striking imagery but is let down by some lackluster fight choreography. The first big showcase fight in particular looks staged and given it happens about half an hour into the film, that’s a long time to wait for something that looks like a dance routine. Things do pick up, though, so before too long, we get Headey running around with paired gun-knives, Yeoh picking off goons with an M-16, and Gugino cutting loose with a minigun.
It’s all over-the-top, comic book-style spectacle, so why does the latter work while the earlier scene doesn’t? It’s not about realism per se, but verisimilitude to the world being built by the film. Simply, as the film progresses, it commits more to its own premise, but it takes a while to hit the speed it should have been cruising at all along.
Still, we do get a cool set-piece where Gillan, her arms temporarily paralyzed, inventively mops up a trio of mooks who have already been mauled previously — one of them is even in a wheelchair. It’s creative and cruelly funny and is the closest the film gets to the kind of off-the-wall, anything-goes manic energy of a really good ‘80s Hong Kong actioner (anyone calling this femme-focused offering a breath of fresh air in the action genre hasn’t been paying attention to what Yeoh and her HK contemporaries have been doing for literally decades. Email me, and I’ll send you a list).
Which means there are better films of this type if you want to go look for them, and that’s okay — there are almost always better films. Gunpowder Milkshake is a serviceable serving of freewheeling action fun, and if it imitates rather than innovates, it’s hardly the first film to commit that sin. Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), and Lena Headey, 300 (2006), are great; while their characters are thinly written (that’s more or less baked into the genre), they both communicate the interior lives of their closed-off characters effectively, elevating the material and giving what could be — and still almost is — a two-dimensional run ‘n’ gun some actual emotional heft.
If nothing else, it’s novel to see the usual angry son/deadbeat dad relationship dynamic gender-flipped. The quirky trappings of the film’s world aren’t quite as tactile or effortlessly cool as the Wickiverse’s, but they do the job. Indeed, “doing the job” seems to be the film’s raison d’etre. Gunpowder Milkshake is an enjoyable time-passer, and while it may be more interesting as a new entry into an emerging subgenre than as a film in and of itself, that’s still interesting enough to deserve your time.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson