The latest film by Israeli filmmaker Navot Papushado, Gunpowder Milkshake stars an ensemble cast that includes Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Paul Giamatti and Angela Bassett. The film focuses on Sam (Gillan), an assassin employed by a mysterious syndicate called the Firm. One night, she gets mixed up in a kidnapping and finds herself the unwitting protector of an eight-year-old girl called Emily (Chloe Coleman). When other assassins target them both, Sam has to team up with a sisterhood of assassins to take them down.
When we first meet Sam, she is pretty much a kid at heart. After a long night of ‘work’, she relaxes with a bowl of cereal and cartoons. She also has a fondness for vanilla ice cream milkshakes that is driven by a nostalgic bond with her mother Scarlett (Headey), who left a teenage Sam in the care of Firm handler Nathan (Giamatti) without as much as a goodbye. Spurred by her mother’s abandonment, a now grown-up Sam has become an emotionless, straight-faced killer.
However, her closed-off nature doesn’t explain how it is all too easy for her to bond with her rescuee Emily, whose hardness implies that she also has personal experience with violence and crime. Therefore, it is no surprise that this shared sense of trauma causes Sam to take on the mother and protector role with fierce conviction – a responsibility that her own mother didn’t properly fulfil as a child. Despite Sam’s best intentions, not to mention Gillan’s charming rapport with Coleman, our heroine’s hardened exterior stunts the emotional depth of her newfound role so her relationship with Emily becomes more of an obligation rather than a profound attachment.
Gunpowder Milkshake also challenges gender roles in action thrillers, as screenwriters Papushado and Lavski use genders to clearly define the good guys and the villains. Sam is essentially a puppet of the Firm, an organisation run by ‘old men’, and still treated like a little girl by Nathan. His treatment highlights a chauvinistic condescension that becomes more evident when the Firm’s own orders make Sam a prime target for a rival crime syndicate, making it all the easier for the Firm to wash their hands of her. Unfortunately, this feeling of power causes them to forget who Sam is and they, along with rival crime boss McAlester (Incheson), ultimately underestimate her as an enemy.
When this haughtiness becomes too late to rectify, it becomes all the more satisfying when Sam holds her own – even when is rendered ‘armless’, her inventiveness and determination as an assassin result in some gloriously entertaining fight scenes that are elevated by a diverse jukebox soundtrack. In fact, it is not until a pivotal sequence in a library that we see that the film’s real power lies with its impressive yet underused sisterhood, comprising Scarlett, the sassy Anna May (Bassett), diplomatic Florence (Yeoh) and soft-spoken Madeleine (Gugino).
Bathed in retro candy-coloured neon lighting, the Spaghetti Western-inspired plot reinforces Gunpowder Milkshake‘s feminist angle while the screenplay resists delving into smart quips. Needless to say, the film’s heart lies in its action scenes that range from the crazy-ingenious to slow-mo spectacular. In terms of casting, Gillan proves herself as a leading lady while Headey, Bassett, Gugino and Yeoh offer touches of subtle glee.
With such a fun title, Gunpowder Milkshake promises that 114 minutes of guilt-free entertainment. The narrative (ironically) lacks punch as Papushado prioritises style over substance, but the film’s ultra-violent fun factor and girl power are in abundance.
Director: Navot Papushado, Elud Lavski (co-screenwriter)
Stars: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson
Country: Germany, France, USA