If the past 20 years of movies have proven anything, it’s that plenty of women have shown the ability to carry an action film just as well as men can. They include Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lawrence, Uma Thurman, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, and Marvel stars like Zoe Saldana, Scarlett Johansson, and Karen Gillan, all of whom owe a debt of gratitude toward Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton for paving the way.
So it’s no surprise that another female-centric action movie, Gunpowder Milkshake, is being released, with one of those Marvel stars – Gillan – as the star. Gillan plays Sam, a contract killer who works for a shadowy group known simply as The Firm, which is led by Nathan (Paul Giamatti). It’s the same group her mom, Scarlet (Lena Headey), worked for before mysteriously disappearing 15 years earlier, leaving Sam to fend for herself as a teenager.
Like all good contract killers, Sam doesn’t question her orders until one day she kills a man whom she discovers was simply trying to pay a ransom to get his daughter back. Soon, Sam finds herself trying to rescue that girl herself and retreating back to a safe house known as The Library to avoid repercussions. There, three “librarians” who are old friends of her mom – Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Anna May (Angela Bassett), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh) – are able to provide her with any gun she requires.
Written and directed by Navot Papushado and co-written by Ehud Lavski, the film is like John Wick combined with Atomic Blonde and Hotel Artemis. It’s clear the filmmakers are going for a high degree of stylization, from the odd, nonsensical title to funky locales like a diner being used as a gang meeting place to the unconventional costume choices for many of the main characters. What they don’t seem to understand is that substance is equally as important as style.
When you’re essentially a copycat of previous action movies, you need to show creativity with your fight scenes and shootouts. While there is some inventiveness to be had in the film, there is nothing that makes you stand up and go wow. In fact, the sequences are so uninspiring that it often feels like the actors are fighting on stage instead of for a movie.
What makes the lackluster action worse is that Sam is given a generic collection of bad guys to go up against. Almost to a man, the actors playing villains engage in goofy, over-the-top acting, leaving no doubt as to the result of the fights and dulling the impact of the film overall. What might come off as fun in a better-made movie is instead inert, with everybody going through the paces so they can move along to the next uninteresting scene.
Gillan, as she’s shown in the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jumanji movies, has a great presence to her that should work well in a role like this. But she, and every other well-known actor in the film, is undone by a story that doesn’t make any sense and action that is mostly lifeless.
Women are not given a chance to lead action movies as often as they should, so when one like Gunpowder Milkshake underwhelms, it’s extra disappointing. The inexperienced filmmakers are unable to make good use of their actors’ talent, and instead of exploding, the action just fizzles away.
Gunpowder Milkshake is now playing on Netflix. It is also showing in select theaters.