Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake takes place in a neon-soaked alternate universe where only criminals and the people who aid and abet them seem to exist. At home there is Karen Gillan’s Sam, a hitwoman for a crime syndicate called The Firm. Sam was raised by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), one of the organization’s higher ups, after her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey) — also an assassin — abandoned her when she was 12 years old. Sam’s lonely but stable life is upended when she kills the son of the boss of a rival criminal enterprise during a job and then learns her next target has an 8-year-old daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman), who’s been kidnapped.
What follows is a giddy, blood-soaked odyssey as Sam goes out of her way to rescue Emily, a decision that results in dozens of violent, mostly nameless men coming after her and the girl. Fortunately, Sam has allies of her own in the Librarians, a trio of women played by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh, who may look unassuming but are every bit as lethal as the men trying to take out Sam.
The crux of the movie is a series of increasingly elaborate action set pieces in which Sam fights for her and Emily’s lives, often assisted by the other women. These scenes are entertaining and creative, but they don’t leave much room for things like character development. As a result, Gunpowder Milkshake is a stylish adrenaline rush, but it’s mostly empty calories. There are hints of a more substantive story, especially when it comes to Sam’s feelings toward her mother and why that broken relationship fuels her desire to help Emily. Plus, the way the women are ignored or dismissed when they occupy roles like librarian or waitress nods to an interesting commentary buried in the narrative about the way women and traditional women’s work have been overlooked. However, the film barely scratches the surface of these deeper ideas.
Instead, it’s the action that animates the film, which was directed and co-written by Navot Papushado, and that action is undeniably a lot of fun. Inventive and often absurd, even shading into slapstick, the set pieces are a wry treat that are spiked with moments of laugh out loud humor. That sensibility ensures the violence never feels too serious, but it also means it’s hard to get overly invested in the outcome of any of the fights. Given the film’s stacked cast, its lack of any real emotional substance is a bit of a disappointment. After all, every one of the film’s big names have proven in other roles that they’re capable of much more. Gillan alone managed to combine action and complicated motivations as Nebula in several Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so it feels like a step backwards to see her focused almost exclusively on stunts in lieu of anything more meaningful here.
Nonetheless, anyone who likes action films, will enjoy Gunpowder Milkshake. Combining elements of John Wick, Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Edgar Wright, martial arts films, and spaghetti westerns, the film bops along from set piece to set piece, fueled by a great soundtrack, a sassy attitude, and an immersive look brilliantly brought to life by production designer David Scheunemann and cinematographer Michael Seresin. It won’t necessarily stick with you, but the movie goes down easily enough to make for an amusing diversion.