Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated R, 115 minutes
Directed by: Navot Papushado
Director Navot Papushado’s GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE is this year’s most aggressively okay film. This middle of the road offering leaves its audience satiated, yet fails to make that feeling long lasting. While it succeeds in giving Karen Gillan plenty of Movie Star Moments to launch the next Jane Wick-ian franchise, it’s utterly reductive of its male predecessor in its narrative components, animalistic-driven gravitas and highly-stylized aesthetic. Violently voluptuous yet vapid, its bold, bombastically brawny flexes don’t amount to much except for mild thrills in seeing the bare minimum achieved.
Similarly to JOHN WICK, screenwriters Papushado and Ehud Lavski keep their plot lean, but not clean enough to crystalize, falling prey to convenience and convolution far too frequently. Sam (Gillan) is a tough-as-nails assassin for a criminal agency run by a group of wealthy, elite men called The Firm. With her goth Carmen Sandiego-esque get-up of a black wide-brimmed hat, dark trench-coat and confident, laconic demeanor, she easily slides undetected into deadly, dangerous circumstances. Until she doesn’t. She slips up, accidentally killing the son of The Firm’s high-ranking member, Jim McAlister (Ralph Ineson), who, in turn, puts out a hit on her.
Around this same time, Sam’s tasked by her de-facto guardian/ handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti) to gather up funds stolen by The Firm’s accountant. She botches that too, in that she takes pity on the guy, but accidentally shoots him before he can get the stolen money to thugs who’ve kidnapped his precocious 8 ¾-year-old daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman). Thinking she can fix everyone’s conundrums, Sam sets out to rescue the young girl, kill the kidnappers and return the money to her employers before they notice she’s gone rogue. What ensues is a neon-lit journey into the underworld where figures from her past – both her estranged mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) and “aunties” Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Madeline (Carla Gugino) – factor into her future.
In order to move the story along, taking the characters from A to B to C, there are giant leaps in logic, leaving a few questions unanswered. The kidnappers turn on each other easily after one PULP FICTION-inspired mistake occurs, for little more than contrived purposes. It’s even less plausible that a hardened, seasoned professional like Sam would ever go off book because her feelings got in the way – for a stranger no less, even if she recognizes a bit of herself in the orphaned child’s plight. We go along with that initial leap out of curiosity to see where the story takes us next, but it’s at an exhausting cost to the narrative’s buoyancy. Later, Sam messes up by leading baddies to a safe house, when it’s clearly done just to have a battle in the ladies’ library base.
When the narrative ingeniously innovates beyond its inspirations and influences, the picture feels vibrant and effervescent. The opening sequence where we learn of Sam’s traumatic backstory with her soon-to-be-deadbeat mom is cleverly orchestrated through extreme close-ups, immersive sound and production design, and crisp edits. The cadence in which the ensemble speaks is Tarantino-lite, and its quirkier aspects deliver some chuckles. The parking lot pursuit is perfectly conceived and executed. Bursts of Robert Rodriguez-style energy occur when action and soundtrack combustably combine. The doctor’s office sequence where Sam is temporarily paralyzed and forced to battle her way through Nathan’s goon squad – who are also physically compromised in some way – lends hilarity and campy excitement, accompanied by a flamenco-style composition to heighten the mood. Haim Frank Ilfman’s score nimbly weaves themes through an eclectic sound, utilizing harpsicords, synths, symphonies and electric guitars.
However, when the filmmakers try too hard, directly lifting from films in the 87eleven canon (like JOHN WICK and ATOMIC BLONDE) is when the ingredients in their film quickly become stale goods. It’s a gorgeous homage that unfortunately lacks subtext and resonant sentiments, from its world-building devices (like the 50s diner and library emulating The Continental), to the way action is choreographed and captured (like in the Gutterball bowling alley scene with Michael Seresin’s cinematography generously favoring JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 and 3’s neon lighting). Sam being “downsized” by The Firm equates to John’s “ex-communicado” status. It revels in a multitude of slow-mo scenes that greatly undercut the powerful spectacle of the climactic one in the diner in the third act. Plus, the shootout in the library, which should act as this film’s most rousing set piece with the ladies exercising their brains and brawn in a glorious chorus of bullets and bloodshed, drags down the snappy pace.
Still, its superficial beauty and knockout cast keeps it from buckling under its own weighty ambitions. There’s always going to be a modicum of fun in seeing powerhouses like Gillan, Yeoh, Gugino and Bassett settle their grudges, despite the basic commentary being “chicks with guns are cool.” And if this opening chapter sets the stage for a larger world for these women to exact revenge, then so be it. It’s fine.
GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE releases on Netflix on July 14. It’s also playing theatrically in a limited engagement on 35mm at the New Beverly in Hollywood from July 14-18th.