After the success of John Wick proved to be more than a fluke, there’s been an uptick in the number of Hollywood movies set in the secret and stylish world of hired killers (or “Wick Flicks,” if you will). I’m into it, personally — something’s going to have to succeed superhero movies as the “new Western” eventually, and the world of assassins has that same sort of violent mythology but a different set of rules. There are some firm genre expectations rooted in film noir, but there’s also a lot of room for different styles, settings, and tones. This is what appealed to me about Gunpowder Milkshake, the new Netflix feature that puts a comedic “neon-noir” spin on the “hitman’s revenge” trend. Gunpowder Milkshake promises a bold, highly stylized vision of a society of assassins, but unfortunately over-delivers on that promise so hard that it’s unpleasant to watch.
A Total Misfire
Gunpowder Milkshake stars Karen Gillan (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Sam, a second-generation assassin who has been in the employ of the patriarchal crime syndicate The Firm ever since her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey, Game of Thrones) disappeared fifteen years earlier. Her handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti, Billions) tasks Sam with retrieving a fortune in stolen bearer bonds and killing the man who stole them. When Sam learns that her target is only attempting to pay a ransom for his young daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman, My Spy), she goes rogue to protect the child from harm. Now on the run, Sam seeks help from the Librarians, the team of female assassins of which her mother used to be a member (portrayed by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh). Together, they resolve not only to protect their own but to dismantle the authority that has exploited them.
Everything about the above logline sounds like an exciting new entry into the growing “Wick Flick” subgenre. But in execution, almost nothing about Gunpowder Milkshake works, and it’s a clear example of the fish rotting from the head. Here we have a talented cast, a solid premise, a skilled cinematographer (Michael Seresin, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), and distinctive production design, all sabotaged by inept direction. The performances don’t mesh, the humor falls flat, and half of the action sequences are oddly boring. Worst of all, there’s such a tryhard vibe to the entire affair that it exhausts the goodwill required to enjoy the jokes and punches that actually land.
I don’t like to get mean when I write about movies. I’m not a filmmaker myself, I’m only a critic and a very green one at that, and I think it’s always important to remember how presumptuous it is to pick apart in an afternoon a work that took someone else years to make. (Cue up Anton Ego’s monologue from Ratatouille here.) With all that being said, after watching Gunpowder Milkshake, my impression of writer-director Navot Papushado is that of a toddler who has just taken a gymnastics class and spends the next week tugging on the pant leg of every adult he sees demanding that they watch him do a cartwheel. He has dissected all of his favorite movies, memorized all of their tricks, and wants to show you that he can do them, too. Listen to my snappy dialogue! Watch me do a split diopter shot! Watch me do a dolly zoom! Watch me do another split diopter shot! Every scene is so packed with gimmicks that they become not only meaningless but intensely annoying.
The Movie You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party
I would argue that Gunpowder Milkshake is too clever for its own good, but it’s still not nearly as clever as its screenwriters think it is. If a person learned the English language exclusively from watching Joss Whedon shows and reading Brian Michael Bendis comics, and that person wrote a screenplay, it would be Gunpowder Milkshake. One would think that a filmmaker so fixated in using the camera in interesting ways might trust the visuals to tell the story, but almost nothing goes unremarked upon in dialogue. Occasionally, there will be a shot, a cut, a quiet acting beat that’s genuinely cute or funny, and then a character will comment on it aloud and spoil the moment. Shots or lines that feel like buttons to a scene are often followed by another one that’s not as good. The direction and editing are no help here either — writers like Whedon or Aaron Sorkin or Amy Sherman-Palladino get away with too-witty dialog because their characters speak at a fast clip, a trick to make the characters seem smarter and funnier because we, the audience, can barely keep up. Much of the wit in Gunpowder Milkshake is delivered at the deliberate pace of dramatic theater, which only makes it seem more unnatural.
Any action-comedy is naturally going to swing back and forth between heavy and jokey tones, but when Gunpowder Milkshake goes broad it never quite feels right. An episode set in an assassin hospital involving a set of goons high on laughing gas is significantly more cartoony than the rest of the film, and is handily its weakest chapter. You’ll almost never hear me complain that a contemporary movie soundtrack is too expressive, but composer Haim Frank Ilfman gives one of the hospital scenes a score that wouldn’t be out of place in a ‘90s Nickelodeon movie. Meanwhile, the actors can’t seem to agree on the tone of certain dramatic scenes. Lena Headey seems like she’s in Die Hard while Angela Bassett is in Sin City. (Again, this strikes me as poor direction.) Only Chloe Coleman, who plays eight-year-old Emily, seems to find the right energy for each of her scenes, and delivers my favorite performance in the film. As the lead, Karen Gillan theoretically has the most to chew on, but she’s playing a guarded and internal character in a bizarre and colorful world which is a difficult position from which to make a strong impression.
There is one 20-minute chunk of Gunpowder Milkshake that surpasses its limitations and becomes a very fun action movie. The sequence in which Sam and the Librarians defend their headquarters from wave after wave of armed baddies is free from most of the movie’s sins in that it has minimal dialogue and lets the action do the talking. It throttles back on the overwhelming visual trickery but still employs the comic book rules of the world, as Sam has to hunt through stacks of books and take down her next opponent using whatever mystery weapon is hidden in the volume she just pulled down. The tone shifts naturally from comedic to dramatic as the danger escalates, the character stories are advanced through the action, and the photography serves the story rather than distracting from it. For the duration of this climactic battle, Gunpowder Milkshake genuinely rocks. Unfortunately, it comes about 70 minutes into the film, long after I would likely have shut it off were I not reviewing it.
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It’s not that there was nothing I liked about Gunpowder Milkshake. Even beyond the excellent library fight, there are moments here and there that I think are charming, but the effort to charm is so transparent that it starts to feel phony. The moment Sam makes the choice to take her mark to the hospital, breaking ranks with The Firm and setting her on a heroic path, she literally loses her black hat to a gust of wind. Sam confronts a quartet of hostage-takers who each wear a mask of a classic horror movie monster, and dispatches “Dracula” by driving the broken end of a wooden mop handle through his heart. At any given moment, whatever the winkiest thing you can think of to happen next will probably be exactly what happens. It’s exhausting.
Some of the other cool elements of the film are diminished once you notice that they’re incomplete. Like John Wick, Gunpowder Milkshake posits that the secret world of assassins is wholly self-contained. There’s a hospital just for assassins, there’s a diner for assassins where they collect the patrons’ guns upon entry, that old library is actually an armory, etc. Each of these locations has style and personality, but what’s missing is any kind of connective tissue, not only between their world and ours, but between the locations themselves. Instead of an open fictional world, Gunpowder Milkshake feels like it has a Stage Select screen. And speaking of what’s left out, this is another movie that seems eager to stoke interest in same-sex character pairings — Carla Gugino and Michelle Yeoh’s characters have the strongest vibe but you could draw lines between any or all of the Librarians — but avoids making them text.
I had high hopes for Gunpowder Milkshake, and I’m truly bummed out that I disliked it as much as I did. I’m bummed because I really want more movies like this, because it’s a fun subgenre, because it’s great to see more women — older women, even — in action roles. As I write this, there are still at least two more “assassin revenge” movies coming before summer’s end, but this was the one I was most looking forward to, the one I thought might scratch that John Wick itch for gunplay and underworldbuilding but with a totally different look and feel. But in all its flamboyance and eagerness to please, Gunpowder Milkshake is missing the one quality an assassin needs most: efficiency.