With its glass brick-encrusted diners and neon-laden bowling alleys, Gunpowder Milkshake is one of those modern films that wants to be set in some quixotic amalgamation of the 1950s and 1980s, but is very much present-day – or some version of it. Lit like an episode of Riverdale, the movie oozes with visual charm and a storyboard that, location after location, almost never repeats itself.
It follows Sam (Karen Gillan), who works as a hitwoman for an elusive corporation called the Firm, which is run by “men.” Whenever they need someone killed for betraying them or stealing their money, they hire Sam. Her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), was also an assassin for the Firm before she disappeared 15 years earlier under mysterious circumstances.
Now, after being sent out on a mission where she incidentally kills the son of a very important member of the Firm, Sam finds herself instantly unemployed, and with a barrage of men hunting her down. To complicate things, she was also tasked with killing another man, who she comes to find out only stole money from the corporation as ransom for his 8-year-old daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). Now feeling responsible for Emily, Sam tracks her down and delivers the ransom money herself, taking the orphan into her own custody.
They seek refuge at a top secret location run by a trio of women called the Sisterhood, played by Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, and Michelle Yeoh. They run a weaponry under the pretense of a massive library, filled with secret rooms where they hide guns inside literary classics such as Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre. Sam’s mom had a connection to the women and so they have no problem helping out.
At first glance (and second and third) Gunpowder Milkshake is very reminiscent of several other films. With the visual aesthetic of John Wick, the tone of Kingsman: The Secret Service, and feminist themes similar to Sucker Punch (along with its Zack Snyder speed-ramping) Navot Papushado’s film still keeps its identity intact through the inclusion of a retro zeitgeist. Video stores, shopping malls, bowling alleys, secret passageways, libraries decorated to theme – everything about this film should be a ton of fun, and it is. The director utilizes these locations very well, and showcases them to their fullest extent.
There are some other creatively crazy moments along the way, such as a hospital fight scene where Sam’s arms go numb and she takes down three armed villains simply by taping a knife to one hand and a gun to the other and twirling down a hallway, using her momentum to whip her arms around. Immediately afterwards, she races through a parking garage with another set of bad guys after her. Her arms are still numb, so Emily sits on her lap as she talks the young girl through the steering wheel maneuvers while she, herself, operates the gas and brake pedals.
Almost like it’s been ripped right out of the pages of a comic book, Gunpowder Milkshake features an incredible, colorful set design and action sequences that carry the entirety of the second and third acts. It’s a good thing there’s not much in the way of dialogue, because the script, written by Papushado and Ehud Lavski, isn’t great in that department, which makes the first 20 minutes pretty rough. Characters talk with the slow, heavy, self-aggrandized intention of those from Sin City, but without any of the wit or actual importance behind their words.
It’s only when Gunpowder Milkshake becomes too concerned with its message the fun starts to feel disingenuous. Platitudes are spoken without any context, and at one point one of the main characters dramatically proclaims, “We all need to pick a side,” just as she and the others have the bad guys cornered. However, this profound statement means nothing. Everyone’s already picked a side.
We’d rather Sam let out some punny catchphrase when ironically driving a wooden stake into the heart of some criminal wearing a Dracula mask. Instead, she just grunts. Cool!
Movies like this never seem to allow their themes to speak for themselves. As it turns out, the Firm is just an ambiguous echelon of old men who “make all the rules.” In fact, there’s not a single male character that’s shown in a positive light in this entire movie. Nowadays there’s another unseen group who seem to make all the rules in the content we view, and this very movie ultimately checks all the right boxes.
Despite being top-billed, Gillan is easily the weak link and the film almost suffers because of it. Her silted delivery is never believable as the pseudo-superhero assassin and she can never just let her face (or eyebrows or jaw) relax for even a moment.
Paul Giamatti rounds out the ensemble cast as the HR rep for the Firm. He gives one of the best performances here, along with the young Coleman, who manages to outshine almost every one of her veteran costars, other than perhaps Headey and Giamatti, as the three members of the Sisterhood are fairly underutilized here, albeit relatively sturdy in their own right.
The title of the film refers to a drink that Sam and her mother share at the ’50s diner towards the beginning of the story. This is never revisited, but it sure sounds good, right? Now that I say it, that just might be Gunpowder Milkshake in a nutshell. Although it’s nearly all style and no substance, it’s also proof that style alone just might be enough to make for a good time at the movies. The colorful neo-noir package in which it’s wrapped is still far more fun than most of the modern progenitors that served as inspiration.