Gunpowder Milkshake Review

PLOT: A botched job leaves an assassin running across town as she commits to saving a young girl, having to team up with other veteran assassins to fight off an army of thugs. 

REVIEW: The execution of Assassin Movie World-Building 101 and abundance of colorful style over substance makes the first 45 minutes or so of GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE – all at once – derivative, exhausting, awkward, even downright annoying. But with the pull of a trigger, the gears are instantly switched and it becomes the rip-roaring, viciously clever time it was trying and failing to be in the first half, utilizing a multitude of ingenious action set pieces that lets its starring ensemble shine as they build into a glorious sisterhood amidst a flurry of bullets, beat downs, and brutal stabs.

As much as I ended up liking the movie from director Navot Papushado (Rabies; co-written here with Ehud Lavski) – and may even be down for a sequel – the movie’s finish is far, far stronger than its start. Yet another action movie cloaked in a neon glow, we’re introduced to Sam (Karen Gillan), an assassin left stoic and seemingly unfeeling after being left alone by her assassin mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), and who has a taste for milkshakes and trying to look cool in a long black coat and matching big, face-covering hat. Working for the ingeniously named The Firm, she botches a job which means she has to take on another job to make up for it, and through a series of hiccups leads her to Emily, a young girl caught up in all this mess. Dealing with her own childhood issues, she commits to helping Emily (Chloe Coleman) to safety by whatever violent means necessary. 

Across all this exposition and world-building, Milkshake plays like a John Wick-lite that’s trying to borrow the flourishes of Quentin Tarantino and the blending of humor and style of Edgar Wright – and failing at most of it. In-movie networks like the aforementioned The Firm and The Library – an assassin safe haven of sorts run by The Librarians (Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Angela Bassett) where the books are code names for various weapons – exist without any in-depth lore to go with them, feeling tacked-on in an attempt to set itself apart without any extra detail but in to make any of it worth being interested in.

So much of the movie’s early moments rely on simply looking and sounding cool, it plays like it was written by someone who has always wanted to make a hard-R action movie but didn’t know how to make it sound like their own. Cliche-ridden back and forths filled with pithy one-liners results in exchanges that try to sound cool but come off stiff and uninspired, with very little working in the way of character beyond how blunt or how quirky they are. And even when there is energy to camera movements and shot construction, others, like the introduction of the Librarians, feels awkward as if people simply talking was of little interest even to the filmmaker. By trying to be so slick and cool and weird and funny but with little being properly engaging, Milkshake initially plays like a bombardment of tones and influences that’s damn-near draining and – especially when it comes the weirder sequences, like those featuring a specific trio of goons – deeply obnoxious.

Unfortunately, despite the impressive cast, Gillain is stuck doing the heavy-lifting for most of the runtime. An incredibly talented and versatile actress, she’s showed off her range across a variety of projects, such as the drama The Party’s Just Beginning (which she also wrote and directed) and even the Jumanji movies, which make great use of her comedic timing and action skills. Here, the material doesn’t make use of much of that beyond her athleticism. The script calls for Sam to be ice cold with the ability to send out a few one-liners, but there’s little else that allows Gillan to mine any depth from her. There’s a lot about her personality and style that hints she shouldn’t also be so stiff, and even though the story eventually pairs her with the rest of the cast (including the young and talented Coleman) allowing her to loosen up a bit, I was left feeling like Gillan was more than capable of handling more than what she was given to work with. But she is a natural action star when the fists need to fly, so hopefully, this is one of the first of many leading action roles for her.

But what I’ve been criticizing are the bones of the movie, which are undoubtedly rickety. But, in acting as a sort of reset between the scenes of people talking that don’t often work, are the glorious action scenes. Glorious, absurd, bone-cracking action scenes. From the first fight in a bowling alley to the bonkers finale, there’s not a single action sequence that doesn’t whip an insane amount of ass. Whatever style and inventiveness are lacking in dialogue and plot is made up for in rousing, clever, bloody combat that’s always managing to surprise. It’s in these moments where Papushado is making the movie he wants to, and on that front, he clearly shows off a knack for envisioning unique carnage. The sequences manage to be slick and even funny when little else in the world itself is, and by making Gillan’s Sam a skilled assassin who can still get kicked around, the ways the scenes are constructed to get Sam out on top are brutally fun from start to finish.

Papushado’s clear vision for the movie manages to really start coming through when Headey gets back in the mix. Even if the mother-daughter stuff fails to see past the “I had to do this for you’re own good” approach, there’s a lot in their dynamic that adds a layer of love and sweetness where so much was emotionally tepid before. From here on out, the movie moves at a break-neck pace, and the humor manages to land, the characters begin to interact in ways that begin to feel meaningful and the ensemble proves strongest when together. While they aren’t explored as well as Headey’s Scarlet is, Yeoh, Bassett, Gugino as Florence, Anna May, and Mathilde do great jobs making their characters feel distinct – and when they get a chance to let loose – their fighting style unique kinetic. As the team assembles against a series of imposing men, their bond becomes something I would very much like to see continue into the future.

Luckily, these stronger elements make up more than the final half of the film, making up for much of what the first chunk does wrong. Papushado wanted to make the movie that the final hour lived up to, and in that realm, he made one of the coolest, most cheer-worthy action flicks you’re likely to see all year. It’s wild, awesome, funny, and makes great use of the cast when it gets going, finishing off with a rousing triumph of sisterhood. It’s very rare I see movies that come back this strong from such an iffy start, but like each and every hit from any one of the leading action stars, Gunpowder Milkshake ends up leaving its mark in a manner that will be tough to shake off for some time.

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