Director: Navot Papushado
Notable Cast: Karen Gillan, Lena Heady, Chloe Coleman, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, Ralph Ineson
It was only after the film ended that it clicked for me who directed/wrote Gunpowder Milkshake. The name Navot Papushado rang a bell, but I never connected what his previous two films were.
Gunpowder Milkshake is very different from his previous efforts, that's why.
Yes, the man who gave us the horrifying double feature Rabies and Big Bad Wolves is also the director behind the two-hour exercise in S T Y L E that constitutes Gunpowder Milkshake. To say it's a deviation from the grounded grittiness of his previous films is an understatement. This comedic action fantasy film is purely unshackled oddities, layered into a traditional crime film plot and then allowed to gestate in a room full of those neon color, black light posters one could find in Spencer’s during the 2000s.
Gunpowder Milkshake is both easy to consume and confrontational to its audience. This is perhaps why the film has been met with mixed emotions since its Netflix debut.
The narrative is comfort food easy, where a young assassin, played with a very stylized coldness by Karen Gillan, ends up on the wrong end of The Firm she works for when she attempts to save the life of a young girl, played by My Spy's very own Chloe Coleman. To do so, she teams up with her ex-assassin mother, the always reliable Lena Headey, and her former assassin friends - a rogue's gallery of acting firepower consisting of Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino. The results are a loosely threaded video game inspired story to get Gillan's Sam from one location to the next, battling increasing numbers of goons, adding in co-op modes, and capitalizing on the sheer lunacy that adds style more than effectively than adding in depth.
However, for this reviewer, it's Papushado's approach that makes this film worth the two hours of viewing. The script and plot are just a baseline for the director, his cast, and his production team to build a glossy and glittery fantasy world. It's quite the fantasy too. The strange otherworldly tones of throwback sets, the bold choices in costume (is Sam wearing a Female Prisoner Scorpion outfit for the first third?), and the choice of color scheme that looks like Lisa Frank went dayglo paint make for such a fascinating visual watch. Papushado soaks in these choices with long cuts, odd angles, and plenty of built-in humor that snakes through all of it. Never before has a little kid panda suitcase been such a bludgeon. The violence is certainly heavy, and it's shown in full force, walking the line between gross and hilarious at times.
With its outlandish outset, the action is sharp and poignant, drawing obvious inspiration from the John Wick franchise and other classic icons of the genre. If you can't see the John Woo in so many moments here in the film, we need to have a chat. The ladies of the film hold their own in the action, although the highlight is the awkwardness of Sam fighting with two limp arms against battle worn thugs, and there are plenty of strange choices to keep an audience feeling uncomfortable - even in the tropes.
There is one choice in this film that perplexes wildly though. Whereas other films of this ilk tend to overplay and overact the emotional cores, see another Paul Giamatti villain role in Shoot 'Em Up, Gunpowder Milkshake does the opposite. Its cast is tasked with UNDERPLAYING everything. There's a strangle subtlety to its noir-like character choices that completely confronts the overload of style in every other choice. The dialogue is presented as almost emotionless, and the performances are stiff. It's such an oddball choice that it needs to be addressed as it will either work for its viewer or completely turn them off. The choice is bold and it worked for me.
The fantasy action film, particularly those with a comedic slant, are their own meta-cinema trope by this point. There are plenty of those out there that attempt to ride the line with finesse. Gunpowder Milkshake has no such finesse. It's brash and bewildering, leaping from one daring choice to the next - in all aspects of the film. It's as awkward as the title would indicate and even with its flaws it deserves a lot of respect for the CHOICES.