Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t half bad. The title I mean, not the movie. It’s a nice mixture of nonsensical and evocative, juxtaposing violence and innocence. It’s memorable and rolls off the tongue. It also feels like something an internet Random Genre Film Title generator might spit out. Movie Mad Libs, aimed at creating the type of neon-tinged mid-budget action fare that tends to make a lot of movie nerds cream their jeans.1 In that sense, Gunpowder Milkshake reflects its title quite well. It is also bad.
Karen Gillan stars as Sam, a hitwoman who was ditched by her hitwoman mother (Lena Headey) 15 years ago, leaving her with hitwoman abandonment issues. She now knocks people off for The Firm, a powerful criminal organization. Sam’s “human relations” handler (Paul Giamatti) references The Firm’s public facing operations, suggesting that it at least presents a facade of respectability.
Some poor guy steals a lot of money from the up-and-up side of The Firm, so Giamatti sics Sam on him. Kill the guy. Grab the cash. Easy. However, things are complicated when Sam finds out that the now gut-shot thief was actually being forced to rip off The Firm. A group of criminals is holding his young daughter hostage, and they will kill her if they don’t get the money.
So, Sam — in a heel turn that doesn’t really work as we never get a chance to see her at her most merciless — decides to do the right thing, putting her on the bad side of everyone other than an adorable little girl.
It’s a solid premise for an action film, albeit derivative. It’s this quality that is Gunpowder Milkshake’s defining failing. There is nothing wrong with taking inspiration from existing works (see what Picasso said about good artists versus great artists). Tropes are tropes because they work, and cinema — particularly genre cinema — is much like formal poetry. There are structural and thematic frameworks, but it’s how the work is fleshed out within those frameworks that really makes it sing.
Gunpowder Milkshake doesn’t sing. If anything it hums off-tune. It’s like the film has seen a lot of neat movies and it wants to be neat like them but it doesn’t understand what it is that makes those movies neat. Nostalgia,2 2010s stylized lighting, and Hong Kong heroic bloodshed action, all slathered over a desperate, desperate desire to be a quirky version of John Wick. I mean desperate.
It tries very hard to replicate the mysterious criminal demimonde that helped define those films. “The Continental” is replaced by a diner (called The Diner) where you have to check your weapons at the door. John Wick 2’s Sommelier is replaced by a library where the “books” are weapons to be checked out. The library, tended by the badass trio of Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino, actually has some narrative and character value, but even it struggles under the weight of contextless tropes, not a few of them taken from the John Wick films.
This really is a shame, as Gunpowder Milkshake has some promising elements. The breezy tone that it’s aiming for could be entertaining if executed properly. The action set pieces are all fun in conception3 but presented clumsily. The jabs at visual stylishness are admirable but you can’t just use that Refn-style lighting and the occasional split diopter shot and call it a day. This movie is flat.
The entire cast, from Gillan to the trio of “librarians” to the consistently entertaining Lena Headey, is great. They’re clearly having a blast and are doing their best to keep this thing above water, but there’s only so much they can do.
Gunpowder Milkshake is a movie trying its damndest to be cool as hell — and cool in ways I personally enjoy — but it falls far short. It’s a rat king of influences and clichés with nothing engaging enough to latch on to, a sin that would be far more forgivable with some decent action and about half an hour of its interminable run time excised. I can enjoy messes. I can enjoy derivative messes. I can’t enjoy derivative, boring messes.