Can we ever really protect our children from the violence of the world we’ve created? Gunpowder Milkshake dares to sort of pose this question, then double dares the audience to try to follow an ultra-convoluted plot that is simply an excuse to watch hot mother figures (Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino and Angela Bassett) bash in the heads of a horde of generic hitmen. The film’s thin thread of emotional sincerity gets lost in Israeli horror director Navot Papushado’s gory venture into big-budget action. His movie favors neon lighting, intricate set pieces, slow-mo as storytelling and the squeezing of brilliant actors into minimally backstoried, fabulously outfitted cardboard characters over much in the way of development or consistency. It’s a bloody feast for the eyes, and if you’re looking for a movie sprung solely from the iconography of other neo-shoot ‘em ups, it’s got some fun in store—you just might have to leap over the plot holes and massive tonal shifts while wielding customized mini-bayonets to enjoy the good stuff.
The plot of Gunpowder, named for the drink its protagonist nostalgically enjoys after a grueling kill (and evoking Twin Peaks on Winding Refn fumes with the diner where she typically enjoys it), is basically nonessential if you’re doing anything other than reading a review. Contract killer Sam (an inexplicably American-accented Karen Gillan) takes after her long-disappeared assassin mother Scarlet (a breezily British Headey) by shooting the head of a competing shadowy hitman’s guild’s only son. Through a convoluted retrieval of unrelated stolen property, she also orphans precocious eight-year-old Emily (Chloe Coleman), who becomes her own determined protégé. By choosing to rescue Emily rather than save the client’s money, and by shooting the wrong person at the wrong time (unrelated incidents that somehow mush together into the same crimson impetus), Sam puts herself squarely in the crosshairs of The Firm, the collective of powerful moneyed men who had previously employed and protected her.
Midway through the film, after twice battling three mercenary “boneheads” sent to even the Firm’s score—utilizing medical tape to form a pretty frickin’ fun Sam KnifeAndGunHands gag that will give physicists psychic headaches—and teaching Emily a quick “how to drive on the lap of the woman you barely know in order to escape more featureless hitmen shooting directly at you” lesson, Sam, Emily and the already too-long two-hour film finally makes its journey to the main attraction. Inexplicably, Sam finds her mother after fifteen years of abandonment, and three generations of misfit fatales make their way to the Library, the only safe home they’ve ever known.
Gugino, Bassett and Yeoh appear earlier in the film as the Librarians, a trio of stylish and hyper-stylized women assassins who speak unwieldy dialogue in Stepford tones, but now they’re dealt a small bit of backstory: They helped raise Sam until her mother avenged Sam’s father’s death and had to flee, pushing Sam into the arms of her handler (an only sometimes deadpan Paul Giamatti). Headey, who slips back into her Dredd and Sarah Connor Chronicles action days with a wry, teasing tone that we don’t quite get from any of the other players, attempts to apologize to the particularly standoffish Anna May (Bassett), in an overture that can opaquely be read as a sign of former romance. While the obvious rips from John Wick’s fully-realized world of underground hitmen and family ties are not quite successful in setting up a hoped-for franchise, the relationships among these women do spark an interest in a far more character-focused prequel—or at least the simple wish that the first slogging hour had been replaced with one such empathy-building introduction. Wisely, these are the relationships and characters the trailer was cut to feature.
When the latter half of the film is filled to the brim with the Librarians, plus Headey and Gillan, flexing their weapons of choice while traipsing through the richly designed Library set, it can be the kind of fun that much of the first half of the film overshoots. Gugino and Gillan even put in slightly heartrending performances when faced with the care of a sure-to-be massively traumatized Emily, adding a minor note of subtlety to the otherwise melodrama-saturated genre flick. However, those real emotions, like Yeoh and Bassett, go mostly underutilized, and the film resorts to an easy forgiveness from daughter to mother—and implied lover to lover—without any of the work that might yield a more satisfying, full-circle healing.
But healing is not the aim of a film that delights in breaking skulls, and in breaking momentum in dialogue delivery and early action sequences alike. When Gunpowder Milkshake’s vague yet threatening antagonist Jim McAlester (a gravel-voiced Ralph Ineson) declares himself to be a feminist, revealing a misunderstanding by character and screenplay alike, it’s clear that violence is meant to be a great equalizer. In some unfortunate ways, it is; Gunpowder Milkshake’s Oldboy and Kill Bill-inspired sequences equally fail to hold a candle to their sources. In a more positive avenue, however, Bassett gets to monologue and swing hammers, Gugino gattles a gun and Yeoh’s brief shining solos could stand out in any symphony of limb-tearing. Sometimes, that’s all the feminism and intergenerational healing of mommy issues one humble moviegoer could ask from any pastiched girlboss action film.
Director: Navot Papushado
Writer: Navot Papushado, Ehud Lavski
Starring: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti
Release Date: July 14, 2021
Shayna Maci Warner is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.