THE STORY – To protect an 8-year-old girl, a dangerous assassin reunites with her mother and her lethal associates to take down a ruthless crime syndicate and its army of henchmen.
THE CAST – Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett & Paul Giamatti
THE TEAM – Navot Papushado (Director/Writer) & Ehud Lavski (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
In a world where every original action movie has dreams of spawning a franchise, too many of them default to a safe, audience pre-approved style. They trot out a fun main character with an intriguing backstory, plop them down in the middle of a story that any audience member could tell you the ending of when they sit down and throw in a few funny one-liners to keep the audience awake. But instead of being exciting and fun to watch, these films nearly always settle for another rehash of fights and chase scenes we’ve seen before, with little filmmaking flair to make them feel fresh. A standing ovation, then, for Navot Papushado’s first English-language film, “Gunpowder Milkshake,” which is full of all the literal and figurative color that most action films are lacking these days.
Samantha (Karen Gillan) was only twelve years old when her assassin mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), left her to go into hiding. Now, fifteen years later, Samantha has her mother’s old job as an elite assassin for a crime syndicate known as The Firm. But her latest assignment goes wrong when she chooses to save the life of an eight (and three-quarters) year-old girl (Chloe Coleman), leaving her unprotected at the very moment that another crime boss is hunting her down for killing his son on another job. This leads Samantha to a reunion with her mother and her mother’s former crew: Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Madeline (Carla Gugino), assassins undercover as librarians.
A group of assassins using a library as their front is a great enough idea on its own, and it could be argued that “Gunpowder Milkshake” would have been better off just being about The Librarians. But doing so would spoil all the fun that the film is able to get out of its premise, which is by a considerable margin the purest, drunk-on-cinema fun of any film released in 2021 up to this point. Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski have concocted several fun scenarios for the film’s action setpieces, most notably a three-on-one fight where the three are high on laughing gas, and the one has no control over their arms. As a director, Papushado has a tremendous visual sensibility to aid his sharp comic instincts – the number of laughs this film gets from a perfectly-placed edit or sound effect is surprisingly high. The film starts with fun neon-lit title cards, and it makes good on the promises of those images with increasingly colorful, stylish cinematography.
But probably the single best decision Papushado made as director was to hire David Scheunemann as the production designer. The man behind the sets of last decade’s most stylish action film (“Atomic Blonde“) once again pulls out all the stops for the film’s major locations, giving Papushado and cinematographer Michael Seresin some fantastic playgrounds in which to stage the rip-roaringly entertaining fight sequences. The library, which encompasses not just one but four fantastic-looking sets, is a sight to behold, but that’s not even half of it. There is also the fluorescent white glow of a doctor’s office, a neon bisexually-lit bowling alley, and a picture-perfect ’50s-style diner, each home to a cleverly-shot, thrillingly choreographed fight sequence with its own distinct personality.
And that’s what makes “Gunpowder Milkshake” feel like a cut above most other action films: It has gallons of personality. From Gillan’s deadpan underplaying to Bassett’s palpable fierceness, the cast members are all working in different registers while never once feeling like they’re all in different films. Louise Frogley’s costumes are full of subtle playfulness, Haim Frank Ilfman’s neo-Spaghetti Western score rocks, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing enhances the adrenaline rush of the fight scenes without sacrificing coherence and continuity. Even the needle drops aren’t the same overplayed cuts we’ve heard in countless other films. It’s a bit sad that here in the United States, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is going straight to Netflix, as it would be an absolute blast with an audience in a theater. Still, if doing so allows this sugar-coated grenade of a film to become a franchise in the vein of “John Wick” (along with the aforementioned “Atomic Blonde,” this film’s most obvious forebear), then that will be quite the cherry on top of this cinematic sundae.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A stylish blast of badassery starring some of the toughest & coolest women in the industry today, with plenty of wit to spare.
THE OSCARS – None