Women often follow in their mothers’ footsteps, whether it’s a career choice or aspects of their personal lives. But what if your mother is a lethal assassin and a killer for hire? Gunpowder Milkshake is a mother-daughter action film full of empowering female characters fighting for life and autonomy. With a killer soundtrack and elements drawn from noir and western films, Navot Papushado’s neon-soaked film easily becomes a summer blockbuster, complete with an all-star cast.
Sam (Karen Gillan), abandoned by her mother, Scarlett (Lena Headey) – an elite assassin, chooses to follow her mother’s path. Raised by The Firm, a vicious crime syndicate, Sam is now a fearless hit-woman. She uses her intelligence and killer instincts to clean up The Firm’s most perilous messes. But everything good always comes to an end. After a job for The Firm goes terribly wrong, Sam has a choice to make: she either serves The Firm or saves the life of an 8-year-old, remarkably clever girl – Emily (Chloe Colman). The only chance for survival is reuniting with her mother, and her deadly henchwomen called The Librarians. Amongst them are Anna May (Angela Bassett), Madeleine (Carla Gugino), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh).
Gunpowder Milkshake is nothing I expected, yet, it is everything – and more! Papushado, previously known for Big Bad Wolves, undoubtedly drew inspiration from westerns, noir, and crime films. When it comes to the latter subgenre, the influences are most visible in the first act, particularly when Sam is dressed in all black and wearing a hat over her red, wavy hair. With the sounds of the music by Frank Ilfman (Big Bad Wolves), Sam must complete her mission before it’s too late. Papushado focuses on the presence of weapons used by Sam and the play on shadows which is often evident in the old-timey crime films.
The director incorporates elements of western films while modernizing Gunpowder Milkshake, which is filled with neon lights, strong contrasting colors, and lethal sweetness. The soundtrack is especially evocative of the genre’s influence. In one of the many dynamic scenes, Ilfman’s theme song, Goonfight at Gutterball Corral, starts playing in the background as Gillan’s Sam fights Boneheads who were sent to “talk some sense into her” by her handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti), The Firm’s associate. Sam attempts to reason with the men, but when all else fails, she doesn’t hesitate to use force. Papushado also employs a split diopter lens, which is used several times throughout the film to add depth and visual appeal and is my personal favorite component.
The first act of the film and its opening is a campy, pastel-filled brilliance. But the tone changes after Sam loses the hat and long coat and dresses into a bowling alley-themed bomber jacket. The first part of Gunpowder Milkshake focuses on the character’s exploration and build-up, while the second part is where the action begins, with Bassett, Gugino, Headey, and Yeoh grabbing an elaborate weapon (whether it’s a chain or a finely crafted hatchet) and seizing the initiative.
The presence of the four aforementioned actresses really enriches the film, especially the inventively edited, delicious action scenes – you won’t be able to get enough of them. One of the most intense, contemplative, ultimate badass moments is when Janis Joplin’s “A Little Piece of My Heart” starts to play and Gugino’s Madeleine begins to shot with a multiple barrel machine gun placed on the top of the van. The director’s use of slow-motion certainly adds to the effectiveness of the scene.
But that’s not the only noteworthy battle scene. Papushado understands how to create tension between the characters, as evidenced by the final showdown between the “Librarians” and The Firm’s henchmen. As Emily’s life is threatened, Sam, Scarlett, Madeleine, Anna May, and Florence fight tenaciously as their enemies break into a previously impenetrable terrain – the Library. The beautiful, old building with high ceilings and filled with books is now in trouble as it becomes a bloody battlefield.
The film’s success is certainly driven by its star-studded cast. All of the actresses play important roles in the film, and each has their own theme music, weapon of choice, and specific role as “a Librarian.” Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh are so good together that I wish they had even bigger roles in Gunpowder Milkshake. I wanted more of them and would love to see a prequel about them and how they came to be. Perhaps something to consider? I also can’t help but notice that there was a particular chemistry going on between Scarlett and Anna May, as well as Florence and Madeleine. It almost appears as they were meant to be more than just friends and colleagues. After speaking with a few critics, I realized I wasn’t the only one who noticed it. I wouldn’t necessarily call it queer-bating, but it would be great if it was addressed and specified further.
Gunpowder Milkshake is an elaborate, potent action thriller that is not only visually appealing but also has a strong narrative, particularly when it comes to mother-daughter themes. Moreover, the film possesses elements that remind me of Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Yan’s Birds Of Prey. It could be due to the use of contrasting colors, exaggerated dialogue, and the overall atmosphere of the film. But, whatever it is, it works extremely well and is worth seeing for.
All-female action films have a rightful existence in the genre. They uplift, provide excellent entertainment, and, most importantly – they empower. Gunpowder Milkshake certainly fits this category and is a great summer flick. I hope I’ll have a chance to see it on a big screen. Preferably while sipping a milkshake.