Gunpowder Milkshake: Netflix’s action-thriller is an open, awkward copycat

Gunpowder Milkshake, the latest John Wick knockoff, can be described like this: What if that female-superheroes-assemble moment from Avengers: Endgame was expanded into a full two-hour movie, starring one of the actors from that specific scene, and incorporating plenty of bisexual lighting and a cute kid for good measure? The simplicity (and arguably superficiality) of this kind of girl-power-rah-rah energy is the fuel of Netflix’s unnuanced, ungraceful, often uninteresting Gunpowder Milkshake. The film’s intermittent delights are momentarily satisfying, but then numbness sets in, like the brain freeze that blooms after you slurp on the film’s titular ice-cream treat.

A seemingly lab-grown, algorithm-assembled array of elements meant to please everyone, Gunpowder Milkshake boasts a solid supporting cast. (Particularly Game of Thrones’ Lena Headey, who outshines star Karen Gillan, aka Guardians of the Galaxy’s Nebula.) There are a couple of thrilling action sequences, and the production design flickers between emulating Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-soaked indulgence and Michael Mann’s sparsely cool neo-noirs. But it’s difficult to tell what Navot Papushado’s own directorial style might be like when Gunpowder Milkshake feels like a grab bag of other filmmakers’ quirks, from Zack Snyder’s slow-motion tableau pans to J.J. Abrams’ snap-zooms. Like so many recent action movies, Gunpowder Milkshake is hampered by an overzealous editing style that denies viewers the satisfaction of bodies in motion. And like so many recent movies aimed at a female audience, it’s full of feminist promises that wind up feeling thin.

Gunpowder Milkshake doesn’t entirely ignore the women-supporting-women cause. A mother protects her daughter, a twentysomething woman befriends and mentors a young girl, and three women gladly welcome back family members who left years before. But there’s no depth, and the a script never digs into anything these characters have in common past their gender. Gunpowder Milkshake does the bare minimum, and although it makes some smart aesthetic choices, they don’t add up to the singularity a familiar film like this requires.

Paul Giamatti sits opposite Karen Gillan in a nighttime diner scene from Gunpowder Milkshake

Photo: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Because it is, in fact, familiar. The film is frustratingly incapable of improving on its obvious influences, from the John Wick franchise to Atomic Blonde (with which it shares a production designer, art director, and set decorator), along with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Gareth Evans’ The Raid and The Raid 2. At what point does homage cross over into imitation, and at what point does imitation fail to provide entertainment? Gunpowder Milkshake is on the wrong side of both those questions.

Gunpowder Milkshake uses voiceover narration to introduce Sam (Gillan), an assassin who works for the nebulously powerful, all-male organization the Firm. “They’ve been running things for a long, long time,” Sam says, and she and her handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti) have been killing people for them for 15 years, since her mother Scarlet (Headey), also an assassin for the Firm, left her behind. Their rain-soaked, purple-lit parting took place at a diner Sam still frequents for its milkshakes after she murders her latest target, sews up her injuries, and further cultivates her terrifying reputation. But after a job goes wrong one night and she kills someone unexpected, her life begins to unravel.

Nathan tells her things can be set right if she tracks down a person who stole from the Firm, kills them, and gets the group’s money back. Over the course of — maybe one night, maybe a couple of days, the film is unclear on this — Sam gets to it, but nothing is as simple as it seems. When she reconnects with “librarians” (and weaponeers and armorers) Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Anna May (Angela Bassett), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh), they remind her of her childhood and her mother. So does Emily (Chloe Coleman), the daughter of one of Sam’s victims, who fills her with a sense of personal responsibility. With a target on her back, Sam needs to use all her shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and mixed-martial-arts skills to fight back against foes Jim (Ralph Ineson) and Virgil (Adam Nagaitis). “Just another day at the office,” she deadpans, but that isn’t quite true — especially not when her long-lost mother returns.

Between the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji franchises, Gillan is now an action star. So why does she spend Gunpowder Milkshake doing an ineffective Uma Thurman impression instead of cultivating her own take on Sam? The film opens with a beautiful shot of a slash of red light illuminating only Sam’s eyes in a dark, blood-spattered apartment, but then its first hour drags because of the way Gillan mistakes stiffness for seriousness.

It doesn’t help that the tone of the script, co-written by director Papushado and Ehud Lavski, is all of over the place, demanding that goofy lines (“You haven’t touched your milkshake”) and phrases (guns referred to as “clean broomsticks”) be uttered with complete candor. And the urgency with which Gunpowder Milkshake wants to prove its feminist bona fides (Sam clarifying that she has no problems killing women, although the film never actually asks her to; the librarians loading her up with weapons hidden in books by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Virginia Woolf; a villain complaining about his daughters) feels insincere, given that most of the film’s top-line crew are men.

Karen Gillan, seen from behind and wearing a hat and trenchcoat, faces a panel of weaponeers —Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, and Carla Gugino — in Gunpowder Milkshake

Photo: Reiner Bajo/Netflix

Nevertheless, there are some thrills to Gunpowder Milkshake for those who are willing to ignore the tedium. A fight in a dentist’s office, with a gun and a scalpel taped to Sam’s hands as she whirls, spins, and takes on three baddies, takes its time capturing Gillan’s body, from her awkwardly efficient flailing to her split-second problem-solving. A car chase where Emily sits on Sam’s lap and helps her drive around a parking garage, zooming and drifting and reversing away from two cars of pursuers, is well-paced. And although the major mid-film fight scene suffers from such jarring editing that even Michael Bay might say, “Hey, guys, cool it,” the second hour of Gunpowder Milkshake absolutely improves when Headey, Gugino, Bassett, and Yeoh have more screen time. Their screen presences are so unique, and their comedic timing is so good (Yeoh’s droll “It’s a tooth” when she pulls something out of her hair) that they somewhat balance the film’s other disappointing elements.

Do they redeem a bizarre ending that unnecessarily absolves Sam of any wrongdoing, but of course leaves open room for a sequel? They do not. But when Gunpowder Milkshake has so few successes, Headey’s half-smirk, Bassett’s exasperated line deliveries, Gugino’s set jaw as she steps behind a mounted machine gun, and Yeoh’s effortlessly cool eyepatch-wearing will have to do.

Gunpowder Milkshake is now streaming on Netflix.

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