With the absence of a John Wick installment in 2021 there have been some decent substitutions. There was the Bob Odenkirk as suburban dad John Wick of Nobody and now there is the Karen Gillan as assassin lady John Wick of Gunpowder Milkshake. More brightly candy-coloured than the other movies, Gunpowder Milkshake has engagingly messy cartoonish ultra-violence. This may be a bit lacking in stakes as the bad guys are basically just easily vanquished baddies for the hero characters to smash. Also, the trope of cynical assassin grows a heart by taking care of young charge has been a bit overdone lately with Logan or The Mandalorian. But the action is enjoyably loopy with some unique moments like Angela Bassett taking out a goon by smashing his forehead into a milkshake, which earns bonus points for originality.
Sam (Gillan) has been on her own ever since her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey), left. Sam is working for the Firm, a league of secret assassins, and her boss, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), sends her out on a mission which promptly goes sideways. Due to twists of fate, Sam has to take care of the young girl, Emily (Chole Coleman), as she is on the run from various goons. It turns out Sam killed the son of a powerful criminal, McAlester (Ralph Ineson). Now Sam seeks the help of the Sisterhood of assassins with Florence (Michelle Yeoh), Anna (Bassett) and Madeline (Carla Gugino), and her estranged mother to fight the rampaging crooks who want them dead.
Gillan’s Sam and the world she inhabits are all very much like John Wick; she is a top-tier assassin, and a mysterious league of assassins is operating in plain sight at the corners of society. They go to a roadside diner and the waitresses ask them to check their weaponry at the door according to the rules of conduct, much like the hotel in Wick. She even goes to a special medical treatment centre that only services people in the business. Ineson and Giamatti are the personifications of the various organizations out to get Sam, and Giamatti, as always, plays a jerk incredibly well, and Ineson gets in a menacing monologue about how Sam has taken his son from him.
There’s a bunch of parental issues floating around this. Sam’s mom lamely explains that bailing on her daughter was trying to keep Sam safe. This is another one of Headey’s motherly characters, although she’s only about 14 years older than the person she’s supposed to be a mother of which creates a jarring disconnect when grown woman played by Gillan is calling her “mom”. Scarlet does get in a good quip or two like when she’s telling Sam they have to escape through a washing machine and Sam asks where it goes and Scarlet snaps back, “%$^ing Narina!” Gillan’s Sam is mostly stoic however she has some great reactions like when a thug clips her in the shoulder and she just glares at him annoyed. The sisterhood of assassins who supply Sam with her ammo have a very motherly attitude towards Sam. Even though Nathan, turns out to be evil double-crosser, he does greet Sam with fatherly compassion. Yeoh, Gugino and Bassett get a good action scene where the crew fights off the baddies with Gugino’s character getting an especially dynamic exit. They aren’t exactly fully realized characters but there are fun moments like when they supply guns to Sam by loading her up with books that have concealed weapons. The biggest parental issue thing is Sam protecting Emily after Sam killed Emily’s dad. Including My Spy, this is another movie where Coleman is playing a kid who is looked after by an assassin that learns to care about her. However, the huge deal that Sam killed Emily’s dad is brushed over without a confrontation. Still, the trope that a gunslinger learns to grow as a person by taking care of an orphan adds a sheen of emotional depth.
All the issues about parenting are eventually superseded by extremely goofy looking violence. Gunpowder Milkshake really shines when the action becomes gory cartoons with some inventive twists. A showdown in a bowling alley features flashy neon colours and dynamic frame arrangements as Sam batters thugs with everything at her disposal. Later on when she’s injected with a tranquilizer she has to fend off the same thugs who are doped up on laughing gas. Since Sam’s arms have gone limp she has a gun taped to her hand as she swings around like a top, firing wildly. Afterwards there’s a chase scene with her and the kid in a parking lot where the kid has to drive while Sam shouts directions at her. There’s even a hide and seek scene in the lot with is an incredibly dopey idea to do with cars but it kind of works. The action finale features a one-take, slow motion shot in the diner of the crew fighting back and it is gloriously messy.
Gunpowder Milkshake is colourful chaos that may crib a bit too liberally from its inspiration source of John Wick but it has its own distinctly crazy vibe. The best bits are when it stops trying to be a character study and when people start pin wheeling around and providing gleeful mayhem.
Director: Navot Papushado
Starring: Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Chloe Coleman, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett