Much of Gunpowder Milkshake’s runtime is spent hearing a bell ring. Bad Times At The El Royale. Ding! Kill Bill: Volume 1. Ding! Kill Bill: Volume 2. Ding! Léon. Ding! John Wick. Ding ding ding... Jackpot? Unfortunately, not. Just the empty echo of a clang marking familiar ground.
Karen Gillan is assassin’s-daughter Sam, who followed in her mother’s footsteps after being left 25 years prior in the care of Nathan (Paul Giamatti), a middle-manager with crime cabal The Firm. When a job goes wrong, The Firm throw Sam to the wolves; she responds by going all out for revenge with Emily (Chloe Coleman), an eight-year-old girl she’s helping; the Librarians — her ‘aunts’ who deal in weapons and tough love; and her reappeared mother (Lena Headey).
Sam is basically Beatrix Kiddo, but without the speech, the steel or the style. Chloe Coleman (who does well with the material) is Léon’s Mathilda without the deep, compelling fracture of vulnerability. There’s a neon-drenched retro diner. An establishment of crims — headed up by men — that you really can’t trust. Slow-mo, blood-soaked action set-pieces. A spaghetti-Western inspired score. Kitsch Japanese kittens. There’s even an approximation of The Crazy 88, which is simply a truckload of blokes in badly fitting suits.
The film really ties itself in knots when it comes to feminism; like a boiling-hot crumpet tossed from hand-to-hand.
What there isn’t — even if one or two set-pieces do land, especially one with all the women tooled-up — is truly fluid, literate action; writing that can be judged alongside any of the aforementioned films (director Navot Papushado co-wrote with Ehud Lavski). It’s hugely disappointing for a film that boasts such a powerhouse gang of female actors. There is absolutely no world in which Angela Bassett should be given the line, “Fudge you!” (Hey, there were kids around!)
There is an easy, believable intimacy between Gillan and Headey, but it’s Gillan who sits uneasily as the hitwoman. Sam is awkward and odd (there are definite touches of Doctor Who’s Amy Pond and Guardians’ Nebula). This is perhaps intentional — with the comic tone the film strains for — but it ultimately undercuts her position as one of the best killers in the world. She’s goofy, not gifted with a gun.
But the film really ties itself in knots when it comes to feminism; like a boiling-hot crumpet tossed from hand-to-hand. Women, it says, are the ones who sit with the consequences of men’s violence (“There’s a group of men called The Firm,” says Sam in the opening narration. “They’ve been running things for a long, long time and when they need someone to clean up their mess, they send me.”) But then the women kill with equal vengeance and violence, pushing the Thatcher-brand of equality that says to be equal to a man, you should become him. There’s even — God help us — a woman who shakes her hair out seductively just before going into battle. It’s a feminism, and representation of women, that rings as hollow as the bell that you can’t help but hear through the film’s 114 minutes.