movie review

The Women of Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake Deserve Better

Is this really the best Hollywood can offer the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett? Photo: Studio Canal

Gunpowder Milkshake, Netflix’s latest in a long line of glossy, forgettable fare, is a flagrant reminder that execution is everything.

It isn’t that the story, about an elite assassin who is burned by her former employer, was meant to be novel. It was the cast that proved alluring, a bevy of powerful actresses capable of carrying a film several times over regardless of the material. An early tease held so much promise, namely the image of Angela Bassett wielding a shotgun, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino flanking her sides, with curious, daunting gazes and bespoke costumes. This picture, and the majority of early marketing, suggested something tantalizing: a major action vehicle for a trio of amazing women who have lately occupied more supporting roles than central ones. But in order for them to shine, they needed basic care from the men — and yes, it’s all men — writing, directing, shooting, and editing this film. Unfortunately, it is a distinct lack of care that infects the entirety of Gunpowder Milkshake. 

The problems are apparent from the very first scene, in which Sam (Karen Gillan), a supposedly badass assassin, explains in a tired voiceover who her employers are: “There’s a group of men called the Firm […] When they need someone to clean up their mess, they call me.” Cut to a freeze frame, with Sam’s guns drawn in both hands and a look on her face aiming for intensity, and we’re thrust into a story of slapdash world-building. Though it was filmed in Berlin, Gunpowder Milkshake never quite explains where in the hell this story takes place, nor does it flesh out the criminal underworld of its making. Instead, we’re given a convoluted story with opposing thrusts. Sam is sent to kill a man and regain the money he stole from the Firm. Things go awry, somehow leading her to take in her victim’s 8-year-old daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). To make matters worse, Sam killed the son of crime boss Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson), leading the Firm — mostly represented by a man named Nathan (Paul Giamatti) — to stop protecting her. This is all complicated by the sudden presence of Sam’s mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), an efficient assassin in her own right, who has reentered her daughter’s life after a 15-year absence. Got all that? It’s as if the filmmakers, including director/co-writer Navot Papushado, mainlined the John Wick films and took all the wrong lessons. Every turn or reveal in the film necessitates a mammoth amount of exposition that fails to unearth any soul.

The tedious shortcomings pile on from there. The only compliment I can give Gunpowder Milkshake’s lackluster action is that I can tell where characters are situated in the physical space of its scenes. (Like so many other contemporary films, its listless sequences are colored by the annoying repetition of that flipping move every female action star is asked to do.) The film’s humorlessness is off-putting; it is slick to the point of lacking texture. But the underlying problem is more fundamental. Gunpowder Milkshake is led by someone without the star power to carry it, surrounded as she might be by actresses far more interesting.

It turns out Bassett, Yeoh, and Gugino — who play assassins named Anna May, Florence, and Madeleine, respectively, and work under the cover of a grand library — are merely window dressing here. Sure, they get two fight scenes in the third act of the film, but they are primarily side characters meant to support and engender the richer story Sam is given, of grappling with an absent mother all the while tending to a kid who is dealing with a similar, seismic loss. And if you don’t get it, don’t worry, the film will remind you in flashbacks. It’s hard to glean who these other women are in personality or style because the filmmakers aren’t all that interested in them or their dynamics with Scarlet, whose disappearance seems to have also hurt Anna May especially. That action maven and all-around dynamite actor Yeoh (whose work spans English-, Cantonese-, and Mandarin-language films) and Angela Bassett, one of our greatest American actors who hasn’t been cast in a truly meaty role in ages, are wasted is a travesty, no matter how much of a faux-feminist gloss you give the film. The truth is, even though there are a few older (white) women like Jean Smart getting a career resurgence, Hollywood as a whole hasn’t caught on to the richness of storytelling that comes from focusing on veteran actresses, who put younger actors trying to claw their way to stardom from the morass of superhero IP to shame.

Watching Gunpowder Milkshake makes it evident that Gillan’s success in her Marvel outings as Nebula is mostly due to the visual design of the character and the ensemble nature of the films. Sam is meant to have brio. She’s meant to be imposing, complicated, easy to underestimate but impossible to dismiss. Gillan snarls, glares, and grimaces as she stumbles her way through the performance. She’s aiming for a gimlet-eyed, fiery gaze, but lands on vacant. Worse yet, she doesn’t have the physicality to make the film hit you in that pleasurable, adrenaline-action-movie center. Now, it’s not necessarily Gillan’s fault. The writing does her no favors. When Sam gets shot in the arm, she’s meant not to flinch. At all. Instead, she just looks annoyed. Is she an automaton? One of the pleasures of the John Wick films is that its titular anti-hero played by Keanu Reeves gets his ass kicked and has to fight his way to bloody success. When your lead character doesn’t even wince when a bullet is shot through her upper arm, what are the stakes?

Gillan is the center of the film, but my eyes always kept wandering over to Yeoh, Bassett, and Gugino, forgotten in the background. Headey fares better as the assassin mother Sam yearned to follow. But their relationship is mostly cutesy bickering and apologies. There’s no heart to be found. The film attempts to be moving and heartfelt, mostly through the tribulations of Emily. She is forced to navigate piles of dead bodies, learn how to outdrive a bunch of bad guys hot on their heels, and generally face the sort of predicaments that would scar someone twice her age. But the character is often too precocious for her own good. Moreover, by relying on Emily as a plot device, the film perpetuates this idea that femininity and motherhood go hand in hand and thus the latter is necessary to stories railing against certain conventional masculine tropes. The badass female lead who is forced to reckon with maternity by protecting a child is in films great (Aliens) and fun (Birds of Prey) and outright forgettable (Proud Mary). What unites them is that their filmmakers — or producers, as this trope feels more and more like a studio note used to sand off the edges of otherwise complicated feminine bricolage — are telling on themselves, on their own ideas about femininity, power, and who is allowed to go against the grain of societal expectation. I wasn’t expecting Gunpowder Milkshake to rewrite the rules of modern American action cinema. All it needed to do was grant its audience a good time. Despite all the efforts of everyone involved, it can’t even do that.

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The Women of Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake Deserve Better