Whether it’s the unlikely pairing of Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit,or even Harley Quinn and Cassandra Cain in Birds of Prey, the ‘cold-blooded assassin has to babysit’ concept is one as old as time itself. Navot Papushado gives that trope a neon coat of paint in crime-thriller Gunpowder Milkshake.
Though it wins some points for its catchy name, Gunpowder Milkshake misses the mark elsewhere. Its shopworn narrative puts Karen Gillan’s Sam in the centre of all the action. Before a botched job forced her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) on the run, she taught Sam all she knows about how to kill. Fast-forward to fifteen years later and Sam is a hired hand, on a job, when she realises her target is eight-year-old Emily (Chloe Coleman). She has been set up to fail by The Firm, you see, a crime syndicate led by Nathan (Paul Giamatti) – so Sam seeks revenge and recruits an assortment of librarians-cum-killers to help her take his coterie down.
And if that all sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it is. Papushado’s script wears its influences on its sleeve but adds little else to the conversation. It wants so desperately to be a cool female-led action film and, by definition, it is. It throws a capable cast into various set-pieces but with very little underpinning it all. Perhaps the biggest issue is that men directing female-led actions is a precarious tightrope to balance on; the result here feels particularly trite and tacky, as if the whole thing exists purely for the gimmick of being a “female-led action film”.
Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski are certainly keen to keep reminding us of its sales pitch, in any case. Take Birds of Prey as a counterpoint in which the female-led aspect doesn’t come with bells and whistles; it’s just what the story is. Here, it feels as if the script is parading the cast for their gender. It somewhat detracts from the whole feminist edge the film is striving for when it keeps advertising itself as “being different” because of that. A women that shakes out her hair seductively before throwing herself into a fight? That about sums it up.
There’s very little characterisation permeating the action, too. A tactless, derivative script mistakes enigma for empathy and shrouds these people in such secrecy that very little ever gets through – and what does comes off in a heavy-handed exposition dump. Subtlety is not a thing that Gunpowder Milkshake does well. But if the writing doesn’t make that clear, the heavy-set neon will: Papushado may try his best to channel the aesthetic David Leitch and Chad Stahelski cultivated with the John Wick franchise, but under his direction, the whole things just looks cheap and plasticky, and very evocative of a straight-to-VOD movie (which is ironic, because it is indeed straight to Sky Cinema here in the UK). A couple of cool action sequences and a very game cast that admittedly kick a whole lot of ass are wasted in a film that tries too hard and achieves so little.
Gunpowder Milkshake releases in cinemas and on Sky Cinema September 17th.