A Neon Sugar Rush
A review of Netflix's 'Gunpowder Milkshake'.
Gunpowder Milkshake has one of the best movie titles of the year. It’s catchy and intriguing, and actually manages to capture the ethos of the new Netflix movie itself: violent and sugary, not terribly filling but something you’ll still enjoy well enough.
The action flick takes viewers into a John Wickian world of assassins, full of librarian arms dealers, ‘50s-style diners, and near-omnipresent neon lighting. At the center of it all are Sam (Karen Gillan) and her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), two of the world’s best hired guns who haven’t spoken since Scarlet abandoned a young Sam 15 years prior. The two are pulled back together after Sam accepts a mission to retrieve a large sum of money stolen from her mysterious employer, the Firm, only to find that the thief was blackmailed into his crime by someone who kidnapped his daughter. Sam decides to save the girl and finds herself at odds with both the kidnappers and the Firm, teaming up with her mother and librarians Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Anna May (Angela Bassett) to take down the male-controlled operation.
This is explicitly a feminist movie, pitting strong women against chauvinistic men in a battle royale of the sexes. At times, the feminist messaging gets a bit heavy-handed—the librarians give Sam new guns hidden in books only by female authors, for example—but for the most part the movie functions well as a straightforward gory action film. There’s nothing terribly innovative about the movie. You can see fairly clearly how it was inspired by films like John Wick and Hanna and Kill Bill, and Gunpowder Milkshake bears more than a few passing similarities to Birds of Prey—violent criminal takes a young girl under her wing and puts together a team of women to protect her; entirely male antagonists; final fight taking place with waves after waves of henchman attacking the women. (However, Gunpowder Milkshake, it should be said, is a much better movie than Birds of Prey.)
No new ground is broken, but to the film’s credit, it is an original story. In today’s media landscape that alone makes it worth celebrating. And even when it is aping other movies, it manages to do so well; the film pulls off some entertaining fight scenes, the best takes place in a hospital where a poisoned Sam, who can no longer move her arms, takes down a trio of assassins she’d crippled earlier in the film. It’s manic and goofy, with one assassin on crutches, another in a neck brace, and the other in a wheelchair, all still slightly high on laughing gas they stole from the doctor, getting brutally taken down by Sam who has a gun and a scalpel taped to her hands.
In creating its underworld of assassins, Gunpowder Milkshake strikes just the right amount of weird, with alternating rich, dark and bright, poppy aesthetics, and a cast of idiosyncratic characters. Gillan is limited in her role—her past as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ruby Roundhouse in the Jumanji films, and Eliza Dooley Selfie show that she has comic chops that she never really gets to show off here. Instead she’s called to be a stoic figure in a weird world, and it’s the weird around her that comes off as much more interesting. Gugino, Yeoh, and Bassett might very well be the best part of the film, playing their arms-dealing librarians with true panache and quirkiness that lends itself well to both the action and aesthetic of the film. It’s a shame the trio doesn’t feature prominently in the plot until the latter half of the story.
Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t redefining the action genre. It won’t go down in history as a powerful feminist work. But it is kind of fun, the type of movie that you’d enjoy watching once and then not think much about after. Until, that is, the inevitable sequel—everything’s got to be a franchise these days.