Since bursting onto the scene as Doctor Who’s fiery companion, Karen Gillan has carved out a particular niche as an actor. Her signature is playing characters who look like they should be supremely cool but who have the heart of an awkward dork—a talent she’s put to use in both the Guardians Of The Galaxy and Jumanji franchises, as well as her cancelled-too-soon sitcom Selfie. It’s why Gillan initially seems like an odd fit to lead Gunpowder Milkshake, a John Wick-flavored shoot-’em-up with an icy opening act that aims for cool by way of both 1950s noir and neo-Western. In her early scenes as brutal hitwoman Sam, Gillan’s husky growl and boot-stomping demeanor seem like an act, rather than the earned confidence of a trained, veteran killer.
But it turns out that’s kind of the point. The reason for casting Gillan becomes clear in the film’s standout action set piece, in which Sam must face off against three goons sent to kill her, all while dealing with the inconvenient fact that both of her arms have been temporarily paralyzed. It’s a sequence that pulls its influences not from the sleek Atomic Blonde-style thriller Gunpowder Milkshake initially seems to aspiring towards but from an old-school Jackie Chan vehicle, where the ass-kicking is delivered with comedic flair. Gillan’s wry, gangly energy is a perfect match for a scene that throws its young hitwoman into an impossible situation and then watches as she improbably, hilariously gets out of it. Gunpowder Milkshake comes alive in its darkly comic action sequences, which prioritize creativity as much as brutality, with an uncommon focus on props, locations, and wide compositions.
It’s a shame, then, that director/co-writer Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves) struggles to find that same tonal confidence elsewhere. Gunpowder Milkshake is about half as funny and clever as it should be, weighing down its cheeky sense of humor with attempts at genuine pathos that fall flat. Sam is still haunted by memories of the night 15 years earlier when her hitwoman mom, Scarlet (Lena Headey), skipped town, leaving her daughter to be raised by handler Nathan (an underused Paul Giamatti), the middle manager at a corporate crime syndicate called The Firm. Though Sam has dedicated her life to doing The Firm’s dirty work, several intertwined missions-gone-wrong leave her on the run from the organization with an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman) in tow. Thrown into makeshift motherhood, Sam is determined to do better by Emily than her own mom did by her.
That eventually brings Sam back in touch with her “aunts,” three commanding matriarchs who dress like grown-up Powerpuff Girls and run a stately library that’s also a gun depository and safe house. (Gunpowder Milkshake unfolds against the backdrop of the sort of quirkily polite criminal underworld that has become the norm in our post-John Wick landscape—including a 1950s diner where criminals have to leave their guns with a friendly waitress.) Librarians Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Anna May (Angela Bassett) are introduced with appropriate gravitas and style, although Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski struggle to write banter worthy of the legendary women playing them. (At one point Bassett has to earnestly deliver “hunch smunch” as a comeback.) The script is also frustratingly inconsistent when it comes to how well Sam knew these women growing up, and why her mom didn’t just leave her with them instead of Nathan.
None of which would be a problem if Gunpowder Milkshake clipped along at a faster pace and with a little more comedic verve. This is a film that practically begs for the pacing and needledrops of an Edgar Wright comedy; instead it gets bogged down every time it tries to make a larger thematic point about cycles of violence inflicted on women in a patriarchal world. Though Gunpowder Milkshake was written, directed, produced, lensed, edited, and scored by men, the movie’s press has been eager to tout it as a story of “female empowerment.” But there’s not any particular depth to what the movie has to say about the female experience or the nature of relationships between women—certainly far less than in Cathy Yan’s Birds Of Prey, which also featured a group of deadly women coming together to protect a young girl. (While that film depicted a woman putting her hair up mid-fight scene, Gunpowder Milkshake features one inexplicably taking hers down.)
In as much as they exist, Gunpowder Milkshake’s feminist themes are better served by the breezy camaraderie between its leads. Papushado’s biggest stroke of genius is simply casting Headey and Gillan as mother and daughter; the two genre stars share a certain loopy sensibility that makes them immediately believable as family. And there’s cackling fun to be had in Headey whipping out a gun that’s also a knife or Gillan scrambling to survive using a suitcase handle and a bar of gold. The novelty of watching the film’s impressive female ensemble bounce off one another never wears off, even if Gunpowder Milkshake feels like it only ever scratches the surface of what each of its leads can do.
It’s not hard to imagine a sequel amping up the elements that work and downplaying the seriousness that doesn’t. Gunpowder Milkshake has all of the ingredients for a truly great action flick, even if it doesn’t always combine them in quite the right proportions. Key to it all is the way Papushado and fight choreographer Laurent Demianoff ensure that each action scene tells its own story: a subversive Michael Mann-inspired sequence where Sam’s enemies turn out to have internal conflicts of their own; a delightfully innovative parking lot car chase; a beautifully brutal slow motion climax set to Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Gunpowder Milkshake may be clunky with its words, but it says all it needs to with its style.