A lot goes into the making of a film, and while it usually starts with a script it grows to include casting, direction, production design, music, and so much more on its way to becoming a finished movie. It’s like ingredients coming together to create a satisfying meal, but sometimes, even when those individual elements seem appealing, the end product can taste… off. Gunpowder Milkshake is not the tasty treat you’re expecting.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is an assassin for an organization called The Firm, and it’s the only life she’s known since being abandoned by her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when she was a child. Her status quo is upended, though, when she pulls the trigger on someone connected to a competing group that demands retribution — and just like that, The Firm gives her up. Hunted by killers and with a young girl in tow, Sam looks to women from her past for help.
In keeping with the sloppy metaphor above, the ingredients that make up Gunpowder Milkshake are undeniably appealing. The cast — which also includes Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Paul Giamatti — is absolute aces. Director/co-writer Navot Papushado is one half of the team (alongside Aharon Keshales) that gifted genre fans with Big Bad Wolves (2013) and Rabies (2010). And the plot, while familiar enough over the past few years, is a terrifically promising setup for something special. So why is the end result so damn dissatisfying?
The film is an exercise in style over substance, but that in and of itself isn’t a criticism. When done well, style can effectively heighten a film’s other elements in memorable ways. Here, though, Papushado feels compelled to infuse each and every frame with imagery that screams “look at all this color and cool shit!” While the production design works to create a world detached from time and just this side of reality, the mishmash of vibes — noir! neon! comic book! family-friendly dialogue! bloody violence! — keeps the film off balance in ways that detach viewer interest rather than engage it. Locations like the diner and library look good, but they almost feel like backdrops rather than immersive settings.
Gunpowder Milkshake‘s script, from Papushado and Ehud Lavski, fumbles some in its attempts at humor leaving jokes falling limp to the floor like so many spent bullet casings. Gillan has proven her comedic abilities elsewhere, but she’s unable to find the funny in dialogue that’s equally clumsy with its attempts at more serious beats that instead feels stilted and precious. The film wants an emotional dynamic between Sam and Scarlet, and between them and the trio of librarians, but the groundwork is absent in building those moments.
The film’s trailer handles the reveal of the power trio — Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh — far better than the film itself as they’re rolled out here unceremoniously in a clunky first act. Flashbacks only add to the problems by padding the film’s running time with wholly unnecessary sequences that serve only to drag down the momentum. Their placement doesn’t help either, and whether due to the script or choices in the editing room, they result in an opening thirty minutes that visibly struggles to find its footing.
While it’s being billed as an action movie, Gunpowder Milkshake‘s weakest element might just be the action itself. Like its clearest inspiration, John Wick (2014), the film delivers a blend of gunplay, fisticuffs, and car antics alongside its abbreviated worldbuilding, but little of its manages to thrill or energize. Papushado’s desire for style consumes some of that energy as he slows down numerous action beats like Zack Snyder to highlight the imagery, and while a late-film diner sequence looks very cool in its slow-motion carnage it’s far from exciting. Most sequences play out at normal speed, but you’d be forgiven for thinking some of the fights have also been slowed down as the choreography and execution suggest that a bit more time in rehearsal was needed.
The legendary trio of Yeoh, Gugino, and Bassett look fantastic (and kudos to the costume department for an excellent job here), but despite the film feeling too long they’re not given the time or the script to stand out. They’re glorified window dressing in Gunpowder Milkshake leaving Gillan to hold the film up on her own, but while she gives it her all it’s an uphill battle against empty noise. Cinematographer Michael Seresin captures much of the film and characters well and finds some striking images here and there, but the aforementioned issues with the action can’t be remedied by his camera. Similarly, Haim Frank Ilfman‘s score finds some dramatic and genre-tinged sounds, but it’s in service of a film that can’t match it.
As mentioned, all of the pieces are here for one hell of an exercise in genre, style, and fun, but they just don’t gel. Papushado’s spoken about his inspirations and intentions, but while the strands and connections are visible they too often miss the mark when it comes to the execution. The cast alone makes Gunpowder Milkshake worth a watch, but that rumbling in your stomach isn’t from lactose intolerance — it’s a pain in your gut from realizing this should have been a tighter, better, more cohesively entertaining movie. Still, the filmmaker’s talent is abundantly clear meaning we can’t help but look forward to his next genre-flavored treat.