Gunpowder Milkshake features two tropes common to most assassin movies: On the one hand, we meet an exhausted killer, possessed with only enough moral and spiritual energy for one last job. Of course, that final gig naturally ends up exacting more penance than our hero is willing or able to pay. Meanwhile, so many movies like this depict the protagonist as part of a fun little ecosystem of assassins and supervillains. Much like a well-armed frat-house, all the characters deal in secret handshakes and in-jokes. The members of this community may not be friendly, but there is a kind of chilly decorum. It makes me think of that line in Rounders: You don’t see the pirañas eating each other.
Milkshake shows us a weary young woman who’s lived long enough to question the value of this hedonistic lifestyle. Sam (Karen Gillan) was once abandoned by her killer-for-hire mom (Lena Headey), but somehow ended up excelling in the exact same profession. As the film opens, Sam’s handler (Paul Giamatti) presents the Job that Will Break Her: Some poor schlub is in deep with the wrong people, so he’s earned a bullet for his trouble. No sooner has she fired that very round, the man drops a bombshell on Sam: It turns out that all his debts were to pay off a ransom for Emily (Chloe Goodman), his young daughter. Sam’s conscience gets the better of her, and she resolves to help the little girl go free.
Just like John Wick and Jason Bourne, Sam’s sudden decency might lead to her ultimate doom. Nathan, the handler played by Giamatti, issues a kill order for Sam and Emily. And, as with those other flicks, an entire network of scuzzy, ruthless hitmen mobilize in a now-familiar montage: Their phones light up with texts, prompting them to screw silencers onto their pistols and stalk the streets and subways.
Naturally, these scumbags don’t count on the ass-beating of their lives. That’s right–Sam is an all-world basher, ready to pile bad guys high and deep. It helps that these dudes are dimwits who do the hero a huge favor and charge up to get their whoopin’ one at a time. We recently watched Blade II, it was the same damn thing: The villains may as well form up single-file, like they’re at the martial arts version of the DMV. I swear, if these doofus baddies ever learned to work as a team, then even the sturdiest action stars would be in big trouble.
Anyway, Sam is suddenly non grata within her sphere of killers, but she still has a few friends in weird places: She and Emily make their way to an ornate library, where a trio of matronly armorers await them. Madeleine (Carla Gugino), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Anna May (Angela Bassett), provide shelter, security, and Jane Austen books with Uzis inside them. As you might guess, this stately setting makes the perfect backdrop for a magnificently bloody action scene.
You’ve probably also sussed out that nothing much is original about Gunpowder Milkshake, save for that dippy title. Movies like Grosse Pointe Blank and Kill Bill have already shown us a killer with one kill too many, submerged in a sea comedic irony. And while Milkshake is well-made, well-acted, and never boring, it really feels a few years late to the Tarantino Masquerade Ball. If this film were released in 1995, it might’ve been heralded as a pioneering neo-noir black comedy.
Unfortunately, it’s 2021, and Gunpowder Milkshake is a near-miss. That’s a damn shame, because Gillan is note-perfect as an aloof, resourceful young woman who dares to let her heart thaw. As always, Bassett brings both humanity and ferociousness to her gun-carryin’ librarian. Headey also scores as Gillan’s guilt-ridden mom, and the two actresses bring a tense, believable energy to their mother-daughter dynamic. Director Navot Papushado sets his bloodbaths to clever deep tracks, like The Animals’ take on “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” All this gives Gunpowder Milkshake a few enjoyably arty moments, but in the end, this movie left me colder than its corpses.
114 min. R. Netflix.