Gunpowder Milkshake ’s title suggests a sugar rush with a bang, but, while the film has its moments of fun, it is mostly an empty experience.
Popularized by Taken and overdone in the decade that followed, the “you messed with my family and I’m a highly trained assassin” movie premise was treated almost as a mcguffin of sorts to get the action rolling and the guns shooting in by-the-numbers vessels for fading action stars. There have been many post-genre approaches since, most namely John Wick, which deconstructed the archetypal hero while pointing out the intrinsic silliness of the concept, and then rebuilt him – and revitalized the entire subgenre – into an ultramodern uber-cool killing machine. Gunpowder Milkshake flips this subgenre on its head – instead of the usual shtick of the badass protagonist being pulled back into the game, our heroine is presently an unkillable assassin at the top of her field, and she builds her family ties throughout. She is not coerced or intimidated back into a lifestyle she doesn’t want: she is fighting against the patriarchy that looms large over her chosen profession. Unfortunately, the filmmakers get lost in hyper-stylized neon-drenched ornamentation, and the foundation suffers as a result. The title suggests a sugar rush with a bang, but while it has its moments of fun, it is mostly an empty experience.
The film follows Sam (Karen Gillan), a cold-blooded hitwoman abandoned as a young teenager by her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), who is also a professional assassin and was forced to go on the run. After a high-stakes mission spins out of control, putting an innocent 8-year-old girl (Chloe Coleman) in the middle of a gang war she has unleashed, Sam has no choice but to go rogue. This ultimately leads her back to her mother and her former hitwoman sidekicks, who all join forces to seek revenge against those who took everything from them.
Despite its most desperate efforts, and the inclusion of the always wonderful Paul Giamatti in a role whose entire purpose seems to be to act as a thinly veiled connective entity for the movie’s many scrambled plotlines, Gunpowder Milkshake can’t help but feel like a frayed tapestry connected by very thin threads, and, as such, it never manages to come together in any meaningful way. The scenes are strung together episodically, and while each action setpiece is its own brand of explosive feminine badassery, the sum of its parts is overall a disconnected affair. The epic climactic fight doesn’t feel like the converging of all the characters, but just another segment in a series of action vignettes.That’s not to diminish the fun there is to be had – two scenes in particular stick out as inventive: a fight in a bowling alley that utilizes its setting and all the props available for maximum bloody damage; and a scene in which our heroine has to fight three henchmen while her arms are immobilized, which she manages to do by swinging her body around and flipping off the walls, using the propulsion to hilariously obliterate her attackers.
For a film with such strong feminist overtones, the women are as much inconsequential props as the men are disposable vessels. Men get killed; women kill. The attempts to implement emotionality through a strained mother-daughter relationship, and through the addition of a little girl for whom Sam in turn becomes a sort of stand-in mom, fall embarrassingly short. And without any depth of character, we’re left with a by-the-numbers shoot-em-up in which the women’s entire personalities are ultimately limited to their actions: they exist to be killers, just as shallowly as the men exist to be killed. Above all else, it’s a movie that begs a reevaluation of what is considered progress, for merely replacing men with women in the lead roles of generic genre movies is clearly not enough.
Gunpowder Milkshake is now available to watch on Netflix.
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