MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Action Thriller/Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Paul Giamatti, Chloe Coleman, Ralph Ineson, Adam Nagaitis, Michael Smiley, Samuel Anderson, Ivan Kaye, David Burnell IV Jack Bandeira, Mai Duong Kieu, Freya Allan/Runtime: 114 minutes
When I first heard about the slice of cinematic pie that I am reviewing today, 2021’s Gunpowder Milkshake, I must confess dear reader the first thing that immediately came to my mind was the John Wick franchise (though a close second would easily be 2017’s Atomic Blonde). An opinion that may or may not have been formed based off a trailer that seemed to hint this film’s cinematography department, like the one on the John Wick movies, had literally baptized this movie in neon, and gave us several locales to say nothing of a riveting cast of characters that would literally be right at home in that distinct franchise as well. Heck with all of that in play, the fact that this movie is about a group of female assassins just proved to be the proverbial cherry on top of the milkshake as it were. Yet upon watching it, I can safely say that in many respects I was wrong to really compare this to the John Wick franchise. Yes they do have quite a few things in common, but unlike Mr. Wick who is mowing down all these bad guys simply because of a pup he loved more than life itself, the women in this slice of cinematic pie are doing this because their lives have never been in their hands and they’re tired of not being able to make their lives what they would like them to be. Suffice it to say that when this slice of cinematic pie makes the choice to be more than just a throwback to certain other movies and whathaveyou then this proves to be quite the entertaining and ingenious little film. On the other hand, whenever it chooses to emulate those other properties in a way that is extremely on the nose, it does tend to trip itself up and stumble around just a fair bit with only the terrific performances done by the film’s dependably strong cast of performers able to help keep things on an even keel. Thus as long as you go into it and look at this as its own distinct thing, I think you will find that Gunpowder Milkshake is a good albeit flawed slice of cinematic pie that is definitely giving at the very least a shot even if it might not hold up well to repeated viewings.
The plot is as follows: The movie starts as we as movie goers are introduced to our heroine by the name of Sam. Sam, we are quickly able to ascertain is a highly skilled member of that notorious league of individuals known as assassins and whose life was forever altered at the age of 12 when she found herself left all on her own by her equally as notorious assassin mother for reasons that have always remained somewhat elusive to her at a 50s-style diner in town that caters by and large to the assassin crowd. Moving ahead to the present day, we see that Sam has recently gotten herself in a spot of bother with her handler/surrogate dad of sorts Nathan as well as the shifty and shady organization they both work for known only as The Firm (a name that incidentally makes me seriously wish this was the same Firm that Tom Cruise worked for in the 90s.) when her most recent assignment got a bit messier than it should have, but rather than “deal with her” we see that our heroine is given the chance to make amends by hunting down and getting back a pretty decent pile of cash that had recently been stolen from them. However, what starts as a simple recovery op soon becomes a lot more complicated when our heroine uncovers that the main reason the cash was stolen was not one of pure malevolence. Rather, it was so a devoted and loving dad could pay a steep ransom that was being issued for his recently nabbed little girl Emily. Unfortunately due in no small part to being racked with a serious amount of guilt due to having fatally shot the father before he could fully explain himself, we see our heroine make the choice to take up the task of rescuing this man’s little girl and keeping an eye on her even though doing so would be a clear stab in the back to both Nathan and their respective employer. As a result, we soon see our heroine and this precocious child having to flee from the gauntlet of assassins, but if they are to genuinely live and see another day they are going to need some serious back-up. For that this dynamic duo finds himself turning to a trinity of women consisting of the warmhearted Madeline, the silent and stoic Florence, and the quite bitter and cynical Anna May who not only operate a distinct armory of sorts known as The Library, but who were also dear friends with Sam’s mum before her little vanishing act. Together these butt kicking women, along with an unexpected ally from the past, will join forces in a desperate attempt for survival against the force that has done them all wrong in one way or another.
Now right off the bat I am going to say that when this distinct little slice of cinematic pie chooses to make the choice to look past those things that have inspired and influenced it and just simply tries to be its own thing, this movie is able to be both engaging and quite lively in the best way possible. Indeed the opening of the film where we discover the trauma-laden past of our heroine in regards to her shortly about to be aloof mum is cleverly done through the utilization of close-up shots, work in the sound and production departments that places you in the moment, and editing work that is simply terrific. In addition, the tempo of the dialogue in this film is very reminiscent of something you’d hear in a Tarantino film and some of the more unorthodox elements will make you chuckle a little bit. In addition, I also appreciated how brilliantly carried out the scene where Sam and Emily are being hunted in a parking garage was as well as the scene in this film where Sam is in a doctor’s office and, despite being temporarily paralyzed in her arms, must combat a trinity of goons with physical ailments of their own which proves to be the best combination of funny and engaging possible.
However, when the creative powers that be behind this distinct little film try to give us aspects in their movie that feel like they’re just taking cues directly from similar slices of cinematic pie such as the John Wick franchise and the 2017 Charlize Theron-80s spy thriller throwback Atomic Blonde this is when we see things in this slice of cinematic pie start to get a little bit unappetizing. As a result we see in those moments that was a delightfully novel film turns into a beautiful tribute that sadly doesn’t possess much in the way of resonating material to say nothing of vital context. This includes such aspects as the fact that the diner and Library in this feel in their own ways like they’re trying to borrow from John Wick’s Continental hotel to how action beats in this are stylized and shown to us (with particular regard to a scene set in a bowling alley where the work from this slice of cinematic pie’s cinematography department proves itself able to generously capture the neon bath that the movie goer found themselves drenched in previously in both the previously mentioned Atomic Blonde and John Wick movies at certain points throughout) and even to the fact that when our main heroine finds herself the recipient of being labeled “downsized” you won’t be surprised if you find yourself sighing, rolling your eyes, and thinking back to how incredibly similar this label is to the one of “excommunicado” that John Wick is slapped with at the end of the 2nd John Wick movie. Not only that, but this slice of cinematic pie relies a tad bit too much in regards to the infamous concept of “slow-mo” that tragically takes away from just how potent things get in this movie with particular regard to scenes set in the diner and to the gun battle that eventually occurs in the library. Speaking of that by the way, the gun battle which goes down in the library, which should serve as the big moment in this film where our team of female assassins utilize both intelligence and physical skill in an incredible symphony of brilliance and bloodshed just doesn’t have the gravitas that it so desperately deserves though not for lack of effort. Suffice it to say this slice of cinematic pie does have its fair share of positives, but it also has its fair share of negatives as well.
Ultimately though the key area where this slice of cinematic pie works on the level that it is supposed to is in regards to its cast. I say this because each and every one of the players involved does dependably strong work and as such is able to elevate this slice of cinematic pie to the extent that they, for all intents and purposes, are able to help save the overall quality of this movie quite significantly. This starts with Karen Gillan in the lead role who I have always enjoyed as an actress whenever she has popped up in anything and who I felt, especially after her work in the recent Jumanji movies, could lead her own action movie. Suffice it to say she does not disappoint. Yes the script doesn’t give her at times a whole lot to work with, but Gillan still takes the role and runs with especially in the action beats where she is fanfreakingtastic. Now I did enjoy the work done in this by Lena Headey, but I also felt that the movie severely underutilizes her for reasons that I shan’t spoil here. The same could also be said for the trio of women who run the Library. Indeed don’t get me wrong it’s always a thrill to see Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett appear in a movie alone let alone together and even more so when they’re getting to mow down bad guys left and right yet just like with Headey the movie really doesn’t utilize them as well as it ought to. Finally, I also enjoy the work done in this by Paul Giamatti even if by and large he is playing a character in this that he has played a million times before, but hey when an actor is great at playing a particular character type sometimes you just have to roll with it and enjoy the ride.
All in all despite the flaws that are present with Gunpowder Milkshake there is still quite a bit to like and even appreciate about this slice of cinematic pie. Yes this movie owes way more than it ought to other movies of a similar ilk and suffers for it, but the action is vibrant and fun and the terrific cast definitely makes this worth a watch. Suffice it to say then that it might not be the say all, end all female assassin movie, but this is still a world and a collection of characters that I would love to see more of in a future installment I am hoping audiences are lucky enough to get. On a scale of 1-5 I give Gunpowder Milkshake a solid 3 out of 5.