In Navot Papushado’s latest feature film, killing is a family business. Gunpowder Milkshake centers on Sam (Karen Gillan) who, after being abandoned by her mercenary mother (Lena Headey) as a teenager, follows in her weapon-wielding footsteps and becomes a killer on her own. But complications arise and a fuse is set off between a powerful group known as “The Firm” and the killer women they’ve taken from, forcing them out of the shadows.
Gunpowder Milkshake takes the lone wolf assassin story and adds some refreshing dimension. After a job gone wrong, Sam goes rogue to save Emily (a scene-stealing Chloe Coleman) from being collateral damage in her line of work. In a way, Sam gets to play the part of the mother she didn’t have growing up, though begrudgingly at first, while Emily takes this as an opportunity to be her plucky new apprentice in the mercenary biz. Emily’s sense of kid-like wonder contrasted with Sam’s cynical view of the world makes for a rewarding “buddy cop” dynamic that goes to unexpected places.
Along with the central dynamic duo, there’s an ensemble of other women in the assassin business (the ever-delightful Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino) who take up shop in a library where weapons are carved into the pages of classic books. There are moments of the “battle of the sexes, women can be criminals, too!” mentality that can feel a tad girlboss-y (at one point, Sam says that women are fair game when it comes to her work, to which Bassett’s character, Anna May, quips: “She’s a feminist!”). But there are also moments of earnestness and self-awareness that help ground the relationship between these women—including Sam’s estranged mother.
Gillan has been establishing herself as a blockbuster action star as of late in the form of middling Marvel and Jumanji movies, but Gunpowder Milkshake is the first to begin to understand the range of her potential as a performer. She takes what’s given to her and gives it back two-fold: whether it be a closed-off woman with mommy issues, an accidental guardian to a young girl, or a mercenary who has to think fast to get the job done, even in the most ridiculous of scenarios (like taping weapons to her hands in a moment of paralysis). This critic hopes her recent notoriety encourages audiences to check out her earlier works—like her charming and understated debut feature The Party’s Just Beginning—and gives her the security to pursue similar projects in the future.
Gunpowder Milkshake is unsure of its tone at times, swinging from solemn familial drama to tongue-in-cheek buddy comedy in a way that makes the most emotional beats of this film fall flat. There’s an emotional stuntedness to Sam that comes off as a wry, deadpan sense of humor that helps mend the tonal gap—but this is definitely a film with two feet in two different worlds. This is even apparent in its sporadic visual style. In some instances, there are charming bouts of color theory inspired by the film’s dynamic settings—the grandiose library, the halogenic diner, the pulsing bowling alley—while other more dramatic moments are literally shadowed in an attempt to read as gritty noir.
The emotional highs and lows never really level out, and the special effects feel more schlocky and dated than overtly stylistic, but Gunpowder Milkshake manages to corral a dynamic roster of performers to have fun and blow shit up. If you come into it expecting funky weapons, big explosions, bombastic choreography, and somewhat passable emotional developments—you will finish the film feeling relatively satisfied. v