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A neon-colored action flick that doesn’t pay homage to recent genre hits so much as openly ape them, Navot Papushado’s Gunpowder Milkshake takes a femme-centric approach to the uber-assassin format, looking especially eager to get in on that hot Wick-iverse world-building action. Though not without its moments, the film offers too little of interest for its leading ladies to do, and feels throughout like an adaptation of a comic book that was written for the sole purpose of being sold to an IP-hungry film studio.
Playing Sam, a second-generation killer who followed in the footsteps of her absent mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), Karen Gillan projects an inhuman stoicism reminiscent of Nebula, the cyborg she plays in Marvel movies. This is a woman who returns from a shootout, sits in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal, and unflinchingly stitches up her wounds as if she were trimming a hangnail.
As her mom did before vanishing 15 years ago, Sam works for the Firm, a vague businessmen-gangster consortium that gives her assignments through oily Nathan (Paul Giamatti). But Nathan’s intel is imperfect, and the Firm holds her responsible for his errors: When they send her on a job where she unexpectedly has to kill the son of rival kingpin Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson), Nathan and his bosses almost immediately start trying to throw Sam under the bus.
While Nathan tries to get Sam to come into the office and fall on her sword, another job gets her in a cuter kind of trouble: She mortally wounds a man who has stolen millions from the Firm, only to learn he was trying to save his 8-year-old daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman, whose last tyke-meets-gunslinger outing was My Spy, with Dave Bautista). Sam goes rogue to save Emily, who becomes her sidekick in ultraviolent mayhem, unaware that Sam killed her dad.
If Emily’s bold declaration, “I’m her apprentice,” calls to mind Natalie Portman in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional, that’s far from the film’s most brazen borrowing. Just a few scenes prior, the whistling spaghetti-western vibe of Frank Ilfman’s score emphasized how much a fight in an under-illuminated bowling alley wanted to be a Kill Bill set piece. (Its jerky fight choreography wouldn’t have passed muster in Tarantino’s epic.) And throughout, the film makes clear that it hopes to establish a kind of tweaked reality akin to that found in the John Wick films.
With co-writer Ehud Lavski, Papushado makes his biggest move in this direction when he introduces three “Librarians” whose books are just hiding places for various kinds of guns. Sam enters in search of reading material just as Mr. Wick goes to The Continental’s sommelier seeking the right “wines” for every occasion. Here, a Jane Austen volume conceals one kind of pistol, A Room of One’s Own hides another. (Isn’t Sam deadly enough to have earned access to the Patricia Highsmith shelf?) But the conceit is far flimsier here, and the movie’s thin attempt to imply a backstory for the Librarians (Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino and Michelle Yeoh) is so far from compelling it’s almost an embarrassment. (Yeoh is especially underused here — though she does wear Louise Frogley’s bookish-spinster wardrobe with panache.)
The Librarians enter the action wholeheartedly not long after Sam and Emily hunt down Scarlet, looking for refuge once a horde of McAlester’s suit-wearing thugs (a slovenly crew, compared to Kill Bill’s Crazy 88) start hunting her. Scenes with Headey give Gillan some of her only chances to hint at human emotion, as Sam, the abandoned child, acknowledges she needs Mom’s strategic mind.
The more people Papushado puts into a fight scene, the more lifeless it becomes — like the super-slo-mo panorama in a diner that makes you forget gunfights are supposed to excite you. But a couple are worth the time. Midway through, a doctor partially paralyzes Sam, and she has to ask Emily to tape weapons to her hands so they can escape. Though the sequence’s logic doesn’t hold up (her hands are too paralyzed to hold a gun, but she can pull its trigger with nanosecond-accurate timing?), there’s a scrappy energy to the gag that suggests what Gunpowder Milkshake might’ve been, had it devoted less energy to trying to look badass and more to being fun.
Production companies: StudioCanal, The Picture Company
Cast: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson
Director: Navot Papushado
Screenwriters: Navot Papushado, Ehud Lavski
Producers: Andrew Rona, Alex Heineman
Executive Producers: Aharon Keshales, Luc Etienne, Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer, Shana Eddy-Grouf
Director of photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: David Scheunemann
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Nicolas De Toth
Composer: Frank Ilfman
Casting directors: Mary Vernieu, Raylin Sabo
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