A classic case of trying to do it all and accomplishing very little, Gunpowder Milkshake is a missed opportunity for all involved. Despite an aesthetic that is very clearly bellowing at viewers to please notice how original it is, the film, directed by Navot Papushado, clearly tries to draw on familiar archetypes and tropes without offering anything fresh to the table.
Existing somewhere between the worlds of Arkham City and John Wick with their absurdist laws of reality, technicolor palettes, and seedy underbelly, Gunpowder Milkshake’s greatest misfire isn’t that it’s all style over substance, but that the style that does exist refuses to push the envelope.
It’s clear the film wanted to go big, but it should’ve gone bigger.
Gunpowder Milkshake follows Samanatha (Karen Gillan), a formidable assassin who goes through life from one hired job to the next. But her resolve is soon tested when she puts her life on the line to save an eight-year-old girl, Emily (Chloe Coleman). This brings Samatha face-to-face with some people of her past, including a trio of “librarians” played by Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, and Carla Gugino. As well as her mother, Scarlett (Lena Heady), who abandoned her years prior.
It’s a tremendous cast of performers and, if nothing else, a nice change of pace to see women above the age of 40 allowed to lead the charge in a full-on action film.
Casting aside, the film is largely a mess of tones and styles. The idea of three generations of women needing to fight back against a faceless organization of men is inherently intriguing, especially set in a world purposefully out of time. The script, though, written by Papushado and Ehud Lavski, leaves much to be desired, with character motives and their decision-making built to supplement the action set pieces, rather than the characters getting any real depth of their own.
The stilted dialogue is most apparent when first interacting with the librarians, as they’re purposefully written with speech patterns that work as double entendres and hidden codes. And each of the quips they dole out are obviously supposed to be much funnier than the end result.
Even the action is unable to reach its fullest potential, especially in the first fight sequence, which takes place in a neon-lit bowling alley. Despite having an adept actress like Gillan at the center, the choreography lacks impact—even as bowling balls are smashed into faces and noses are broken.
For all the build up surrounding this first fight, there should have been greater momentum once it finally broke loose and released the tension.
Much of what is left to be desired is due to a poorly-directed lead performance from Gillan, who perhaps isn’t meant to be playing the cool, silent killer she’s presented as in this. For all the magnetic charisma she’s displayed in the past from her time on Doctor Who to Nebula in Guardians of the Galaxy and beyond, none of her easy charms are on display.
Rather, it’s as if she was purposefully asked to dull her own star to become a John-Wick-style archetype. Instead of achieving the slick, no-nonsense attitude the film asked for (which is best executed by supporting cast member, Yeoh), the performance arrives as flat, and so much of the film resides on whether or not we actually care about Sam, her relationship with her mother, and the moral dilemma she finds herself in.
Where Gillan is actually given a chance to shine—the element that would, on paper, make her an easy choice for this type of badass brawler—is in her physicality. The action set pieces are the strongest elements of the film, but the best of them all comes about halfway in, when Sam is faced with an extra disadvantage and Gillan mines laughter and delight from her ability to control her body as if she were a marionette cut loose from its strings.
The inventiveness and close quarters claustrophobia of the fight sequence is so great that it makes the lesser, shoot-em-up style of combat far less interesting, especially when the desperate, scrappy, hand-to-hand style of fighting allows for greater character insight.
With all of the talent in front of the camera, it’s a shame that the film disappoints due to a lack of vision.
The vibrancy of set design and quirky costuming can only do so much of the work in world building and tone setting, and the film should’ve afforded itself room for cartoonish playfulness. Maybe then it wouldn’t be so bogged down by the expectations from the genre and instead come alive as a story and film more inspired, more engaging, and more fun. Instead, Gunpowder Milkshake flounders, never quite certain of what style it ultimately wants to be.
Gunpowder Milkshake is available to watch now on Netflix. Watch the full trailer here.