A killer cast (bad pun absolutely intended) leads the way in the upcoming Netflix film “Gunpowder Milkshake”, an action/black comedy packing plenty of girl power and one of the best titles of the year. It comes from director and co-writer Navot Papushado who puts together a stylish shoot-em-up that borrows from an assortment of action movies that came before it. That proves to be both part of the fun as well as the film’s biggest weakness.
It’s impossible to watch “Gunpowder Milkshake” without thinking about “John Wick”. The similarities are just too pronounced to miss. The key difference is this is a female-driven version of that world. Here Karen Gillan plays the John Wick character, a lethal assassin named Sam. She had no choice but to grow up in the killing-for-hire business after her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), also an assassin, left her 15 years earlier. Now she takes contracts from a shadowy underworld outfit called The Firm (you gotta love the comically vague names these organizations come up with).
The movie kicks off with Sam finishing up her most recent contract. She takes out her target but is quickly confronted by a horde of armed thugs on her way out. She kills them all but leaves a pretty big mess behind. The Firm’s not too happy with the results even though they’re the ones who sent her in with bad intel. And little do they know, among the dead is the son of an Irish gangster named Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson). And as these mob bosses are prone to do, McAlester wants revenge. “Now bring me the heads of the men who killed my boy”, he snarls.
Sam’s mentor Nathan (Paul Giamatti) is able to smooth things over with The Firm, even securing her a new contract. It sounds like an easy enough job – an accountant has stolen a satchel full of cash from the Firm. They want her to kill him and get their money back. But once again the job gets messy after Sam learns an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) is caught in the middle. Refusing to leave her behind, Sam saves Emily but loses the Firm’s money in the process. You can probably see where this is going. Soon she finds herself on the run from both the Firm and a revenge-fueled McAlester. And as you might expect, lots of bullets, blood, and dead bodies follow.
Sam and her self-anointed “apprentice” Emily seek help from a sisterhood of assassins consisting of the bitter and brash Anna May (Angela Bassett), the soft-spoken but deadly Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and the hilariously genteel Madeleine (Carla Gugino). It’s a bummer, but this lethal sisterhood isn’t given much of a backstory. We learn there’s some bad blood between them and Sam’s mom. We see they operate out of a beautiful bygone-era library. Oh, and they’re extremely efficient killers. But thats about it. Thankfully the actresses inject the group with enough personality to get by.
Rather than focusing on story Papushado goes heavy into style both visually and in his choreography. We get a lot of sequences bathed in neon especially early on. He also does some clever things with his camera, specifically with different angles, perspectives, and movements. When it comes to the action the fight sequences and shoot-outs can be a little too tightly scripted but for the most part are still fun. And some are completely absurd (which I say as a compliment). My favorite may be a bloody hospital sequence between a partially paralyzed Sam and three hitmen who are high on laughing gas. It’s so ridiculous you can’t help but love it.
Yet there are moments of indulgence that seem utterly pointless. Take the occasional slow motion shot that seems to be there just to have a slow motion shot. Do we really need to see some enter a diner and then suddenly start walking to their booth in slo-mo? Also the frequent nods to movies like “John Wick”, “Kill Bill”, and even “Sin City” keep this movie from having an firm identity of its own. Sure, there is the all-female protagonists and the mother/daughter dynamic. But story-wise there isn’t much to set it apart and you get the sense that you’ve seen it all before.
Thankfully the action and the cast carry most of the load. Gillan pours herself into the role and really shines in the fight sequences. She’s a bit stiff and cold in the handful of dramatic scenes (partially by design), but she makes up for it with her grit and physicality. Headey is tough as nails and the sisterhood have some good moments despite seriously lacking depth. And that’s ultimately the movie itself. There just isn’t enough story to sink your teeth into. Instead it puts all its money on its eye-catching action and some fun performances. Thankfully that’s enough to keep the film afloat. “Gunpowder Milkshake” premieres on Netflix tomorrow (July 14th).