Netflix’s latest action film offering, the deliciously anomalous Gunpowder Milkshake, gives off the vibe that it should be based on something. Like some obscure graphic novel that hasn’t had a global release yet. But no, it’s an original creation of writer/director Navot Papushado. Well, mostly original. This particular milkshake tastes just like you’d expect it to but has an distinctly satisfying undertone.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a notorious assassin working for a mysterious organization called The Firm. A job ends up going wrong, and Sam abandons her objective to protect a young girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) that got involved. Now with every thug, mercenary, and enterprising bad guy in the city after her, Sam seeks help from a trio of weapons dealers posing as librarians (Michelle Yeoh, Angela Basset, Carla Gugino) as well as her own estranged mother Scarlet (Lena Heady), who’s a well-known assassin herself.
Right off the bat, there’s something a little…askew about Gunpowder Milkshake. Not necessarily in a bad way, but things just seem a little off. It has a distinct unreality to it, a kind of purposeful artifice. You can tell right away that there’s no real push to make what you’re about to watch terribly naturalistic. And honestly, that’s just fine.
This is a film that focuses primarily on action and character beats, less on setting and context. There’s just enough world-building here to move the story forward; Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski lay down the foundations of a mythology but don’t really spend much time building it up. In some ways, there’s a kind of jukebox musical approach to the narrative, as if the action scenes were created first and the story built around them.
We’re not even told what city the film’s set in. Every scene feels like it takes place in a video game that spent so much of their budget on urban renders that they didn’t have room to include the random bystanders that might make the city feel more alive. Even though the story takes place mostly late at night, there’s a noticeable lack of background characters. On the plus side, though, there’s no collateral damage. Everyone that gets hurt basically gets what’s coming to them, anti-hero and villain alike.
Does that make or break things? Not really, no. Papushado isn’t aiming for realism here, even though a little touch of it might have been welcome. This is an action film with some dramatic moments in it, not a drama with a shoot-out in the middle. The focus is clearly on making the action scenes sing out and on giving a ridiculously qualified cast of women plenty of chances to engage in some high-end, fantastical bad-assery.
And bad-asses they are. Every woman in the cast has had iconic roles in their filmography as Women You Don’t Want To Mess With. To get them all together in one film is sort of glorious to behold, even if we don’t get enough time with some of them (note to the director: there is no such thing as “too much” Michelle Yeoh). It’s also kind of sad that the mere concept of a female action team-up like this has a thrilling novelty to it. How much longer will we have to wait for the female action lead to finally be normalized?
Karen Gillan especially needs to be seen as the action hero she is. Sam is a multi-dimensional protagonist. She’s a stone-cold professional, but is not hard to tell that she’s using that to mask a vulnerability, one that comes rushing to the surface when she’s reunited with her mother. Gillan has the confidence, emotional range, and even comic timing to make Sam a breakout character. She’s Amy Pond and Nebula and Ruby Roundhouse all thrown together.
Gillan also handles the action scenes with ease, as well. Each set piece aims for a balance between over-the-top and down-to-earth, with each one pushing the limit of plausibility without ever truly going beyond it. They’re brutal but err on the side of elegance and professionalism. Each action scene also has its own unique energy and thesis that makes it memorable and dynamic. In one, Sam’s arms are paralyzed, so she has Emily tape a knife to one hand and a gun to the other, essentially relying on centrifugal force to bring her finger down on the trigger. In another, a fight in a vintage diner is shot entirely in slow-motion with the camera slowly panning down the entire length of the place, showing every bit of choreography in one take. It turns the scene into a living mural of bloody delights.
Of course, Gillan has all the back up she needs. All of her supporting cast have moments to shine with distinct character beats to play from Gugino’s sweet aunt Madeleine to Bassett’s no-nonsense Anna May. There’s a strong vibe of female empowerment in their stories, with a lot of talk from all the women about how they refuse to be used as tools and resources anymore. This is about women claiming or reclaiming their power for their own sake’s first, for all women everywhere second. It’s no coincidence that in the library where the women stash their supplies, all the weapons are hidden in books by famous female authors.
And in the end, who doesn’t want to see women taking full charge of their inherent strengths and power? Well, maybe the top reviewers on IMDB, but that’s a topic for a different article. Like all sweet treats, Gunpowder Milkshake might not be the most nutritious option available, but it does set off all the right pleasure receptors in the moment.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B*
* Honestly, it’s more of a 6, but I keep having sugar rush flashbacks to certain scenes that bump it up to a 7.
Gunpowder Milkshake can be streamed exclusively on Netflix.