If you threw Kill Bill, John Wick, and maybe Atomic Blonde into a blender, pulverized them into a thin gruel, and emptied the results into a screenplay program, it’d probably come out looking and sounding a lot like Gunpowder Milkshake. The latest from writer-director Navot Papushado’s (ABCs of Death 2, Big Bad Wolves), Gunpowder Milkshake is a derivative actioner notable both for centering its unoriginal narrative on a female assassin and for a rare star turn by Karen Gillan (Jumanji, Guardians of the Galaxy). However, Gunpowder Milkshake doesn’t belong in the same conversation as its most illustrious predecessors, but it’s an effective, if ultimately negligible, time-waster. It’s also a reminder that Gillan, like everyone on the other side of the screen (i.e., her audience) deserves better.
Gillan plays the singularly named Sam, a raised, if not born, assassin with serious abandonment issues. Sam’s issues are understandable considering that her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones), is also an assassin for a vaguely defined, generically named, super-secret org, the Firm. Scarlet also abandoned Sam as an impressionable preteen after a hit-gone-bad turned her life upside down. Scarlet’s employers, led by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), sent a clean-up squad to eliminate her. Instead, Scarlet eliminated them, but left poor Sam behind, thus fueling the abandonment issues that define her. Refusing to let an exploitable opportunity go to waste, Nathan scooped up young Sam and raised her as her mother’s replacement. He then lives lucratively on the high-priced hits that an adult Sam, raised to kill, yet not entirely heartless, commits for the Firm.
Sam’s bondage, however, essentially ends when she saves preteen Emily (Chloe Coleman). Sam, like her mother before her, botches a hit, which converts her from asset to liability. With an over-familiar, painfully predictable plot, Gunpowder Milkshake sends Sam and Emily on the run, eventually landing uninvited on the doorstep of an all-female, super-secret group, the Librarians, which is comprised of Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Anna May (Angela Bassett), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh). The Librarians function primarily as not-quite legal armourers for the criminally minded and the firearm deficient like Sam and her cohorts. Initially reluctant, if not downright hostile to Sam’s intrusion, they eventually warm up to her once they discover Sam’s real identity and her reason for seeking them out in the first place while protecting Emily.
As far as we can tell, the Librarians are likely single and child-free. They’re not, however, without their maternal instincts, eventually stepping into the role of surrogate maternal figures for Sam and Emily. It says something about how Papushado views his female characters that they’re almost exclusively defined or redefined by their proximity to motherhood and their willingness to put their individual and collective lives on the line for Sam and Emily. It’s not a particularly progressive view of women, although it’s hard to blame Papushado given his minimal interest in character and story. For Papushado, character and story are merely window-dressing for obligatory firefights, hand-to-hand combat, and otherwise related, gravity- and logic-free action scenes typical of comic book-oriented iterations of the genre.
For all that, Gillan certainly holds her own in the fight scenes where they didn’t use a body double or stuntwoman to take her place (unless, of course, they did). She’s equally strong in the slightly more grounded moments where her thin, underdeveloped, two-dimensional character takes a breather and reveals hints of an actual inner life. It’s a pity that Papushado’s script repeatedly forces Gillan, like practically everyone else in the cast, to elevate banal, disposable dialogue into the realm of the plausible. As a test of Gillan’s abilities outside franchise efforts like Jumanji or Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunpowder Milkshake suggests there’s far more than Gillan can do given the right combination of script, direction, and her talents as a performer.
Gunpowder Milkshake is available to stream via Netflix.