Film Review: Gunpowder Milkshake
Director: Navot Papushado
StudioCanal and The Picture Company
Streaming on Netflix 7.14
When George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wanted to salute the pulp film that they grew up on and bring them into the age of modern filmmaking, it meant literally inventing cutting edge effects and a slick look to Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Navot Papushado, director of Gunpowder Milkshake, is clearly trying to make an unabashed tribute to the action films that shaped him, but doing them with modern techniques means utilizing the stock Adobe After Effects blood splatters and gun flares that you see in student films. If that’s not one step forward, three steps back for filmmaking, I don’t know what is.
Gunpowder Milkshake is the story of Sam (Karen Gillan, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy) who was only 12 years old when her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey, 300, Game of Thrones), an elite assassin, was forced to abandon her. Sam was raised by The Firm, the ruthless crime syndicate her mother worked for. Now, 15 years later, Sam has followed in her mother’s footsteps and grown into a fierce hit-woman. She uses her “talents” to clean up The Firm’s most dangerous messes. She’s as efficient as she is loyal.
But when a high-risk job goes wrong, Sam must choose between serving The Firm and protecting the life of an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman, My Spy). Sam. who might as well have a target on her back, has only one chance to survive: Reunite with her mother and her lethal associates, The Librarians, Florence (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) Anna May (Angela Bassett, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Black Panther) and Carla Gugino (Sin City, Sucker Punch). These three generations of women must now learn to trust each other, stand up to The Firm and their army of henchmen, and raise hell against those who could take everything from them.
Papushado (Big Bad Wolves, Rabies), who also co-wrote Gunpowder Milkshake along with Ehud Lavski, is very clearly deeply in love with Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and the ‘90’s films of John Woo, and he’s trying to do for them what Raiders of the Lost Ark did for adventure serials. But he’s starting off from a much more polished and expensive benchmark, and while he’s got a strong sense of style, he hasn’t got fight choreographers up to the caliber that Tarantino and Woo have worked with, or the same quality of inspiration when it comes to staging and shooting them. While the action scenes are fairly exciting, they continually fell short of what I wanted them to be. And while I don’t entirely blame Papushado for the use of the digital effects, understanding that some of it comes down to budgetary restrictions, if there’s one thing that I’ll take away from this year more than any other it is that you absolutely cannot use these kinds of cheap, post-production gimmicks in slow motion sequences and expect them to look at all convincing. While Gunpowder Milkshake doesn’t have anything quite as embarrassing as the ruinous fire sequence in The Dry—if director Robert Connolly doesn’t have nightmares about how that turned out, I actually feel even more sad for him than if he wets the bed over it every night—it seriously detracts from an all-in-one-take slow motion fight sequence that is meant to be a visual highlight of the film.
The best thing about Gunpowder Milkshake is the cast. It would be hard to cast Gillan and Headey as a mother-daughter team in any genre and not have me instantly hooked, and I will happily watch Yeoh in anything, no matter stupid it is. While Gugino is underused, Bassett is a standout, and young Chloe Coleman, who seems to be making a very specialized niche playing the pint-sized sidekick of gun-toting Guardians of the Galaxy cast members (having played opposite Dave Bautista in My Spy), couldn’t be better. It’s great to see Paul Giamatti in anything these days, and while his character, Nathan, a mobster who sends Sam on her assignments, is largely a functional one, he’s still memorable.
I have to give Gunpowder Milkshake some wiggle room for the fact that I was so excited for it that I knew I was in danger of building up expectations that it would not live up to, and while it certainly didn’t, it wasn’t a crushing disappointment, either. It’s fun enough, and I can certainly appreciate what Papushado was going for, though it was jarring beyond belief to have to process the fact that Face/Off is old enough now that a blatant copy of the Somewhere Over The Rainbow sequence can be considered a loving homage to a classic rather than straight up stealing from a popular action movie, but that’s all part of my ever expanding midlife crisis, and frankly, seeing two of my top celebrity crushes Gillan and Headey, together as action heroines was a nice enough treat to appease that vicious monster for a short while. Gunpowder Milkshake is well served as Netflix fare, feeling a bit too slight for theaters but well worth viewing at home, and I suspect it will only get better on repeat viewings with lowered expectations, unless of course I just decide just to just watch an actual Woo or Tarantino film instead, which is the biggest problem with imitating icons in the digital age. –Patrick Gibbs