When it comes to action films I often find myself actually getting bored midway through. Usually, there is a lack of actual plot because so much focus is on getting from one explosion to the next or the characters are so one-dimensional that I find it hard to connect with them even on the basic level. I often wonder if there is a quota that studios have to hit on how many “popcorn movies” they put out in a year because it constantly feels like everything is being recycled.
Gunpowder Milkshake actually managed to refresh the genre for me by providing a well-intentioned and captured base story, and characters that are layered and complex. It also managed to play around within its original genre and borrow elements of its subgenre that helped give an overdone plot trope new life.
At its heart Gunpowder Milkshake is a story about a mother attempting to reconnect with her daughter after being separated for so long. Sam (Karen Gillan) was left at a diner by her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey) after she had gone too far with a personal vendetta. Sam grows up to become an assassin just as her mother was and soon finds herself in a similar predicament. The man who has cared for her, Nathan (Paul Giamatti) can no longer help and turns her towards someone who can.
The small moments in the film where Sam and Scarlet’s relationship is explored are some of my absolute favorites just because of the chemistry between Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, and even the actress that plays Young Sam (Freya Allan). In just one shot of Scarlet watching as young Sam sips at her milkshake shortly before she is to leave her for fifteen years, she manages to capture the undying love for her daughter. Gunpowder Milkshake manages to put as much effort into their heartwarming scenes as their extended fight sequences. The same diner scene, set to Karen Dalton’s “Something On Your Mind” has Scarlet getting into her car and taking one last look at her daughter who is being held back from joining her. You are completely caught up in this moment that the rebuilding of their relationship becomes a priority for you throughout the rest of the film.
Gunpowder Milkshake is also about making the most of your own family and creating a safe place. Sam finds herself having to rescue eight “and three quarters” years old Emily (Chloe Coleman) after a misunderstanding with Nathan and The Firm, the organization that has raised Sam into the killer she is and who has her track down Emily’s father and retrieve the money he’s stolen. When not even the help of Scarlet is enough they turn to “The Librarians”.
Writer/ Director Navot Papushado was inspired to use the Library as a safe place and the Librarians as the protectors of his own childhood experiences, which I love for the pure fact that I found myself using the library as a means of escape also when I was a child. I always remember having thought that the librarians were some sort of secret society that could kick your butt if you returned a book late. I wanted so badly to be one myself but the closest I ever got was being a volunteering page.
I’m actually disappointed that we didn’t get more time with the three Librarians: Florence (Michelle Yeoh), Madeleine (Carla Gugino), and Anna May (Angela Bassett). Their scenes were some of my absolute favorites, especially when the three of them would play off of their different personalities. Anna May is the street smart leader so her fighting style is dirty. Florence is the wise one who is a master in martial arts, and Madeleine is the mother bear of the trio, who only gets violent when she absolutely needs to. As a group, they seemed balanced and interesting but as individuals, they shined in why each actress was brought to those particular roles.
Angela Bassett has been bringing a certain class, toughness, and poise to the action roles she’s played. Do you recall Strange Days or even Ramonda in Black Panther? She does the same for Anne May in Gunpowder Milkshake by being the one who is easily seen as in charge (even though the Librarians seem to be a democracy voting on their decisions).
I swear Michelle Yeoh floats across any role she performs and always seems very zen and that’s the case with Florence. I grew up knowing her from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon but if ever you want to see her grace in her fighting styles go check out her earlier Hong Kong actions films. Even though she doesn’t say much, the moment you see her you can sense how full of wisdom Florence is. She’s the opposite to Bassett’s Anne May but yet there’s no clashing in personalities.
Then there is Carla Gugino‘s Madeleine who appears to be a softer version of the ruthless Jett Kowalski from the Cinemax series JETT. She even has elements of her Spy Kids character Ingrid Cortez that most audiences know her from. Madeleine is a mother bear through and through, and the scenes involving Emily are given a layer of comedy because of Madeleine’s need to protect her. This film could have easily gone into the Quentin Tarantino league of language but Madeleine is quick to correct everyone in their choices of swear words. Instead, we get something along the lines of Spy Kids which I quite enjoyed being brought back to. There also feels to be a vibe between Madeleine and Florence that says more than just partners. How the two interact with one another makes there feel like there is a romance there, and one I wish we were able to explore a little deeper.
Gunpowder Milkshake‘s female lead cast gives off a The Expendables vibe. It’s quite refreshing to see women past their twenties being able to do the butt-kicking instead of being the victims. They all prove that juicy female roles have not been stopping after you hit a certain age, but have been continuing.
Even Chloe Coleman, the youngest in the cast, feels like an old soul throughout most of this film. Usually, child actors in action films are designated the ones to constantly be in distress, and although that feels at face value to be Coleman’s job she manages to rise above that and throw herself into joining in on the action. When she’s there you pay attention because she makes you care as to what is happening around her.
I feel as though Gunpowder Milkshake works as a great tribute to many aspects of the action film genre. The opening moments are very reminiscent of Chinatown and other film noirs, with its use of keeping Sam in the shadows. The bowling alley fight has many elements that could be found in both Bruce Lee’s martial art films of the ’70s and Jackie Chan’s of the ’90s and early 2000s. Over the entire course of the film, there are elements placed in of Zack Snyder, which is fitting since Lena Headey was in his Spartin epic 300, and of Tarantino which makes me wonder if Sam’s character was inspired by The Bride in Kill Bill.
I had waited two years for this film to come out, and thanks to Netflix it finally has. I can honestly say that Gunpowder Milkshake never has a dull moment and keeps you invested throughout its entire two-hour run time. This film really rejuvenated the action film genre in my eyes while paying tribute to the classics and shuffling in some well-deserved female representation. It also gives you a score and soundtrack that will seriously not leave your head. I still have Mercury Rev’s “Goddess on a Hiway” on repeat as I already patiently wait for a sequel.
Until then, Gunpowder Milkshake is streaming on Netflix and in select theaters.