Dir: Navot Papushado. Starring: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett. 15, 114 mins.
Karen Gillan’s Sam, the pistol-wielding assassin at the centre of Gunpowder Milkshake, is a jumble of affectations in search of a personality. At home, she subsists on chemical-dyed cereal and episodes of Bee and PuppyCat, a deliriously cute animated series about a disgruntled millennial and her intergalactic pet. Her small arsenal of weapons is ferried around town in a bright yellow duffel bag, emblazoned with the words “I ♥ kittens”. She has an impulsive fondness for silk bomber jackets.
Not that you’d hear any of this from her own lips – she’s as silent and sullen as the rest of her professional colleagues. And her backstory hardly feels revelatory either. Sam is yet another abandoned child of an assassin parent (in this case, Lena Headey’s Scarlet) who’s decided to follow the family business. But here’s the kicker: when a job goes wrong and she’s forced to care for the daughter (Chloe Coleman) of one of her targets, she turns to the only people she can trust – Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino, playing a trio of assassins inexplicably dressed like the Powerpuff Girls.
It’s clear that director Navot Papushado considers his female-dominated cast revolutionary enough in itself to justify the relentless pastiche of Gunpowder Milkshake. And to some degree, he’s right. His film is fun, in exactly the way you’d imagine a mash-up of John Wick and Quentin Tarantino in which Bassett wields dual hammers in reference to The Raid 2 might be. There’s a retro diner that seemingly only serves murderous clientele and some Morricone-esque whistling on Frank Ilfman’s score – Papushado’s references are broad, certainly, but occasionally amusing.
His script, co-written with Ehud Lavski, makes sure to subvert the most tiresome tropes of the female action hero. It’s still surprising, even in 2021, to see a film that blends the hyperfeminine and hyperviolent in a way that doesn’t simply resort to overt sexualisation. Neither is Sam ever forced into the position of de facto mother figure – the film is always at its most emotionally sincere when Gillan and Headey are granted a little room to work out their mutually ambivalent feelings toward parenthood.
Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino play a trio of assassins inexplicably dressed like the Powerpuff Girls
(Sky Cinema Original/Studio Canal)
But there’s a stark difference between what’s expected of a franchise star – Gillan, who never overplays the moment, has been a welcome presence in the Marvel and Jumanji movies – and the demands of purely action-driven vehicles. It feels like she’s been thrown in the deep end with Gunpowder Milkshake, expected to perform at the same standard as Keanu Reeves with just a fraction of the training. There’s a fight scene in a bowling alley, captured in an uncompromising wide shot. An observer, the blood draining from their face, mutters: “Who is she?” But when Papushado cuts back to Sam, all she’s doing is flailing her limbs at people like a scarecrow in a boxing match.
The film clearly sees the potential in its cast of talented women, but struggles to do right by them. It spends so much of its runtime waiting, with bated breath, for Yeoh, Bassett and Gugino to finally roll their sleeves up and get fighting. And, when they do, it’s but a brief spectacle. You’d be forgiven for walking away from Gunpowder Milkshake feeling like you’ve been falsely advertised to.