Film historians could probably cite the first female assassin’s appearance in cinema with authority, but the average movie-loving Jill recognizes the spiritual grandmothers of “Gunpowder Milkshake.” None is the first of their make, merely the most popular. “Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2” is the most obvious, give that all modern celluloid hitwomen are some version of Uma Thurman’s revenge-obsessed Beatrix Kiddo.
Plenty of killers for hire came after those figures, and before, but in terms of the ones that matter most to Netflix’s algorithm – besides Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, 2021’s top manslayer – they’re the queens.
Calling “Gunpowder Milkshake” derivative is generous, but we’re talking about an ephemeral candy-colored summertime shoot-em-up. Netflix has a hundreds of those on offer, very few of which qualify as original, so I highly doubt director Navot Papushado and his co-screenwriter Ehud Lavski would take that as a slight.
The film looks, sounds and walks like a high calculated product, though. It may exist independently of Marvel’s release calendar, but it plays like the creation of a streaming service’s “Because you watched” recommendations list, pairing “Doctor Who” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” star Karen Gillan with Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones” and, as a few folks may recall, “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”
Papushado’s neon noir rampage takes itself less seriously than any of those titles, or the others mentioned before them, committing its brains and brawn to a brazenly campy and tongue-in-cheek setup while aspiring to be slightly more serious than the 10 other movies it recalls.
To its credit, the female assassins here aren’t seeking vengeance for having been violated, or hooked on junk, or scorned by a man. They’re just really good at what they do, save for a consequential mistake that leads to a full-on bullet-riddled hootenanny.
Whatever shallow world-building the script engages in matters less than the movie’s star power. Gillan and Headey may top the marquee, but aren’t you wondering why “Billions” star Paul Giamatti, reigning baddest bitch Angela Bassett, action and rom-com star Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino agreed to participate in this business? Perhaps not too much, honestly. Asking this question is a little like wondering, “Why ride a Ferris wheel?” or “Why inhale enough cotton candy to fill a California king-sized mattress?” You know the answer. It’s a simple one: because it’s fun, as long as you don’t vomit.
We also do it because we know what we’re getting: cotton candy tastes pretty much the same regardless of the carnival serving it. The only thing that changes with a Ferris wheel ride is the view. Same goes for this diversion in which Gillan’s killer for hire, Sam, works for an organization known as The Firm.
Said organization is entirely run by men like Giamatti’s Nathan, who raises Sam after her mother, another legendary assassin named Scarlet (Headey), vanishes when Sam was 12. The plot introduces her 15 years after that abandonment, when she botches a mission and ends up having to protect Emily, an adorable eight-year-old girl (Chloe Coleman) from getting knocked off. Capable though Sam may be, she’s also outgunned, leading her to track down Scarlet and enlist the assistance of her mother’s estranged sister slayers: the taciturn Florence (Yeoh), the hardened Anna May (Bassett) and the ladylike Mathilde (Gugino).
Pitting hitwomen sororities against controlling paternalist structures stopped being subversive back in the heyday of “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” Again, the fact we’ve seen dozens of movies like this before, including ones featuring female assassins with mother issues (hello, “Ava”), doesn’t matter.
Certainly this movie makes no apologies about emphasizing style over substance, setting encounters in places like a bowling alley called the Gutterball or an adorable 1950s-style diner, and establishing the female characters’ mystique by making them librarians. Of a sort. Their fortress of books is a true fortress where the sword is definitely mightier than the pen, and works by Jane Austen hold a different levels of power than, say, “Women Who Run with the Wolves.”
“Gunpowder Milkshake” rises to that peak-of-a-pond’s-swell level of clever, which also mean it’s still quite stupid and doesn’t get much more complex than, “Send Group A into a place where Group B is waiting, commence the barbaric yawping and the rat-a-tat-tat.” Whatever! Who doesn’t love watching elegant women get trigger happy on a bunch dunderheaded beast who underestimate them?
As such, nobody in this flick loses anything by starring in it, since we’ve all agreed that it is a frivolous, wacky and occasionally explosive substitute for boredom. Gillan does a fine job with the role, although her chemistry with Headey has more of a sisterly vibe than mother and daughter, which would matter if anyone were watching this for the acting. A more significant problem is the substandard fight choreography – balletic violence is not this movie’s strong point, as a few clunky hand-to-hand bouts wincingly prove.
All that being said, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is worth enduring for the opportunity to see Yeoh and Bassett showcase their action chops in the same film. Yeoh has been active in action cinema more or less consistently over the years, with her recurring role in “Star Trek: Discovery” serving to remind us of how great she is at playing a heavy. Watching Bassett swing a few blunt weapons is something we haven’t seen her do very much over the years; she tends to be cast as the person giving the orders. Frankly, it would be terrific to enjoy her in more of these roles.
Gugino is an under-utilized presence here, but she’s also amply established in this subgenre. In any case, it is telling that out of the two main crescendos in this movie, the performers who are over the age of 35 are the ones whose ferocity is showcased to the highest degree. The secret attraction of “Gunpowder Milkshake” are the real bad mothers in a flimsy romp whose plot revolves around an estranged mother and daughter who slay for pay. They’re the best ingredients in a tale that isn’t good enough to merit a sequel. But if it somehow leads to action encores for Bassett, Headey, Gillan and Gugino, and more for Yeoh, then it is worth the empty calories.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” premieres Wednesday, July 14 on Netflix.