If there were two words I would use to describe Gunpowder Milkshake it would be “wasted talent.”
I really wanted to like this one. These are some of the finest actresses ever to grace the screen. Karen Gillan is a badass. Lena Headey is incredible. Angela Bassett is a talent powerhouse. Carla Gugino has always been one of the most underrated character actresses ever. And Michelle Yeoh is simply a legend. But unfortunately the awkward direction of this movie fails them hard in a film that should absolutely be better than it actually is.
The film, which was released on Netflix yesterday, centers on Sam, an assassin raised by an organization called
The High Table The Firm; a ruthless crime syndicate her mother worked for. When a high-risk job goes wrong, Sam must choose between serving The Firm and protecting the life of an innocent 8-year-old girl (Chloe Coleman). The only way to survive is to team up with her mother (Headey) and her lethal associates, The Continental The Librarians (Yeoh, Bassett and Gugino) to take down The Firm.
Let’s start with the good. There’s no world in which this film could ever be let down by its stars. All five adult women give the best performances they can, all things considered. Yeoh and Bassett are given a lot of opportunities for some decent fights (after all it’s a sin to waste Michelle Yeoh in an action movie), and they end up coming off solid. In fact half the action in this film is salvageable, particularly closer to the end. But it’s really Coleman, Gillan, and Heady’s easy chemistry that anchors the film’s heart and themes of motherhood. The three work very well together, even if the script reduces Gillan to succinct lines and grunts.
Heady is so charming and is given some of the more quirky lines in the film. And Coleman and Gillan’s relationship in the film is one of the few things that actually feels palpable, investing you somewhat in the stakes (even though it’s insanely rushed for Coleman’s character to take a liking in Gillan’s). A better movie would have me begging for a sequel with this team, and were Netflix ever to make one, I’d be willing to check it out simply on the basis of the actresses being as good and easy to root for as they are.
Unfortunately, while I appreciate the desire to make a badass female-driven movie on par with something like John Wick or Nobody, director Navot Papushado just can’t rise up to the challenge. And in place of slick and stylish, fully polished action sequences, we’re treated to awkward ones that don’t look as convincing as they really should. Add to that the inconsistent execution of each of the sequences we’re served up, and you have something of a schizophrenic movie on our hands, that doesn’t know what sort of action movie it wants to be.
It almost feels like Papushado just tried a handful of styles to see if something would stick, and at the end of the day couldn’t pick one. The bowling alley scene felt like a watered down Wick scene, but you could physically see a lack of contact being made with every blow, giving it a bit of unconvincing artificiality. The final sequence in the diner is one long slow mo shot that’s so unnecessary and clumsy, that would have made Zack Snyder blush. Then there’s a scene midway where Gillan’s character’s arms are paralyzed, so they employ what they believe are “creative” ways to dispatch enemies with weapons taped to her hands, that felt like they were trying to imitate old Jackie Chan films where the hero would need to be resourceful to fight at such a disadvantage, but minus any semblance of charm or dynamic choreography.
I will give credit to a few of the shoot outs, such as the one in The Library. There’s also a really good car chase sequence involving Gillan and Coleman that I thought was fun. But Papushado seems to mistake “cartoony” for “stylish” throughout the movie, and it just doesn’t fit. I’m not sure whether he’s trying to do John Wick or Sin City. but either way the styles clash.
The rules of the film’s sequences also somewhat contradict themselves. For instance, when we’re first introduced to Sam, we’re lead to believe she takes out an army of random dudes by herself with a single gun at the very beginning of the movie — the very act that puts a target on her back the rest of the movie. However, later on at The Library, she has trouble fighting off a handful of men, and needs an assist from Yeoh, Bassett, and Headey. Huh? Did we forget she just wasted as many dudes — more even — an hour ago? It’s pretty sloppy in my opinion.
My rule when it comes to these “secret assassin” films has always been the same. If you’re not going to put much thought into the story, it’s excusable as long as the action is amazing. After all, Mission: Impossible movies, for example, never have a complex story, but Tom Cruise scaling the highest building in the world is literally everything! And going in, I knew Milkshake wasn’t going to be a deep movie. And I can’t expect a movie like this to go full “Tom Cruise.” But at least action on Nobody level would do! Unfortunately it just never hits anything very exciting in any of the sequences we’re offered.
The film’s attempts at world building were also pretty scant. Much like the John Wick franchise, this is supposed to be a world set in a heightened reality, with shadowy organizations and gangsters. But unlike the Wick films, there’s nothing interesting about the mythology. We’re told almost nothing about The Firm. It has no personality as an organization. We’re told nothing about The Library other than it’s run by the best actresses of our time. In the grand tradition of showing not telling, the film does neither. And I am fine with the film avoiding exposition dumps, but the mythology serves no purpose other than to send faceless victims for our heroes to dispatch of at them.
Even though Wick does the same thing, there’s aspects about The Continental in the first film, the rules established for it, even the currency the assassins use, that make everything in this world so intriguing. There are no codes, no rules, nothing interesting going on about The Firm or The Library in this movie that gets me to invest in this world. So why bother introducing it at all?
The other grating thing, contributing to the awkwardness of the movie, was the music. It was relatively obvious Papushado was going for the timeless soundtrack to complement his story, in the same way Guardians of the Galaxy’s soundtrack or Baby Driver serviced those films. But he unfortunately also fails at this. None of the pieces really add anything to his sequences, or give them any real character or flair. They simply don’t mesh well.
The sequence in The Library is set to Janis Joplin’s “Take a Piece of My Heart.” It should be a slam dunk in a movie about female empowerment. But sadly it’s just not mixed in a way that complements the visuals. Compare this sequence to anything Edgar Wright does in Baby Driver. The music is part of the story and the visuals flow to the beat of each track. I’m not saying Milkshake needed to rip this off. But it seems like a waste to have a character in the movie ask to play the radio multiple times, and wear a headset, and not have them be invested in any music, or have said music harmonize with the visual aspect, music video style.
My major criticisms about storytelling with a director like Zack Snyder aside, credit where credit is due, the man knows how to cut a music video. Papushado really unfortunately does not. And a movie that is trying to be stylish and fails at it could have benefited from that musical boost.
The long and short of it is there’s a movie out there with this concept and cast that could have been so much better. The actresses are good. Their chemistry with one another is great. And there are a few amusing set pieces. But the movie, while not a complete disaster, simply ends up being as mediocre as they come. And for an idea like this, with a cast like this, and a hunger to stand out apart from other action movies, that’s probably the greatest failure of all. It just should have been better.
Overall Score: C
Gunpowder Milkshake is available to watch on Netflix now.