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'Gunpowder' offers a stale heroine

by Courtney Lanning | July 16, 2021 at 1:43 a.m.

This was a movie I was really looking forward to. It boasted a great cast, fantastic action and a kickass story. Months I waited for "Gunpowder Milkshake" to arrive. Netflix kindly provided me a review copy just like they do for everything else I ask for, and it was ... more of a mixed bag than I expected.

In 2021, Hollywood needs to be cranking out all the action movies led by women it possibly can. "Wonder Woman" and "The Old Guard" show women are just as capable of driving an action movie as anyone else. And in a world where we get dozens of mediocre action flicks led by men, women ought to have just as many gunfights and explosions.

Is having a woman in the lead a guarantee of success for an action movie? Absolutely not. "Miss Bala" definitely proves that. And "Gunpowder Milkshake" wasn't nearly as good as it should have been.

The film stars Karen Gillan as an assassin named Sam, and she's the biggest problem with "Gunpowder Milkshake," which seems like such a strange sentence to type given her history in "Doctor Who" and Marvel movies.

Lena Headey plays Sam's mother, Scarlet, another assassin.

"Gunpowder Milkshake" follows Sam as she makes a few critical errors in her missions and winds up losing a ton of money for this mysterious group she works for called The Firm. After accidentally shooting a man (and eventually killing him), Sam discovers the man's daughter was taken hostage, and he was trying to get her back.

The daughter is an adorable girl named Emily, played by Chloe Coleman. She's cute and sassy enough to make you want to pick up a few guns and shoot an army of thugs to protect her.

This setup should be a great formula for an excellent film. You've got a hardcore main character with a bright sports car and a little girl to protect from a squad of gangsters. Just add water, and you're golden.

TOO STIFF IN ROLE

But it becomes apparent early on to the audience that Gillan is far too stiff in her role. This conflicts with the opening style of the movie, which features a series of colorful neon signs, milkshakes in a 50s-style diner, a couple of clips of the adorable cartoon "Bee and Puppycat" and even a duffle bag labeled "I love kittens."

When you open a movie with all of that and then essentially give the audience a stiff and dull character to follow around, it's a letdown.

I was really hoping for a hyper stylized shoot 'em up like "John Wick." Is John big on emotional expression? Not really. But we're shown his wife dying of a terminal disease and gangsters murdering the puppy she got him. That's enough to drive a movie's worth of rage and killing.

Sam doesn't exactly have an easy life. Her mother abandoned her as a girl, and now she has to protect Emily in a way she feels her mother never protected her. This should be some good soil to plant the seeds of bonding, but Sam never really expresses much empathy toward Emily. Rather, it seems like she's protecting her just because the script tells her to.

Even "John Wick" shows a couple of emotional scenes of bonding with both John's first and second puppies. But for too much of the movie Sam looks like she's trying too hard to be an action hero instead of just being an action hero.

My wife suggested Gillan spent so much time playing Nebula in Marvel movies that she seems to be playing the same character here. Nebula is an edgy and angry character. But she's also a cyborg who spent the majority of her life being tortured by Thanos. It makes sense for her to be stiff and robotic.

But Sam? We're shown her watching cute cartoons, drinking milkshakes, and carrying bags that describe her love for kittens (even though we never see her with any kittens). The movie promised its audiences a more grounded and sleek Harley Quinn trying to protect a little girl from gangsters, and Gillan just didn't live up to that. It's disappointing.

CREDIT WHERE IT'S DUE

Now, I will give credit to Gillan when it comes to the action sequences. She looks great killing all these thugs, and it's a credit to her and Michael Seresin's cinematography. "Gunpowder Milkshake" offers some great fights, especially the scenes in the bowling alley and the one track slow-motion dinner killing shot at the end. The camera work is stellar.

There's a fight scene in a hospital where a doctor injects Sam with a drug that paralyzes her arms. So she has Emily tape a gun in one hand and a knife in the other while she takes on three goons armed with pistols and a shotgun. There's almost a "Kingsman" level of silliness to the violence that made it fun to watch.

It's strange seeing Headey without a crown on her head, but she's fine in this film. In fact, I think my biggest complaint about "Gunpowder Milkshake" would have been solved if Sam had died as a girl, and the movie focused on Headey's character killing waves of thugs to protect Emily.

By far the coolest part of the movie are the librarians. Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino run a library for assassins where books are filled with guns, ammunition, passports, knives, gold and other goodies. I know cinematic universes are starting to become a cliche, but I'd watch a movie about these ladies.

Listening to them tell Sam she needs a "Virginia Woolf" and a "Jane Austen," only to see these books be hollowed out to hold specific handguns was a real joy to behold. It's funny and creative. Bassett, Yeoh, and Gugino really stole the show.

MYSTERY FIRM TROPE

Another problem I have with "Gunpowder Milkshake" is this mysterious organization trope it uses with The Firm.

What does The Firm do in this movie? It's just a group of men in suits who have some unspecified relationship to Paul Giamatti's character, Nathan. The only reason they're in the movie is to give Sam a strange organization trying to hunt her down and sending other assassins to kill her. We don't even see the men in suits except in a few scenes, and all they're doing is sitting around drinking.

If the movie wants to have a mysterious organization of assassins, fine. But define it. Flesh it out. Give the organization purpose and a way to impress upon audiences how powerful it is. V.I.L.E., the evil organization from the most recent "Carmen Sandiego" cartoon, was more of a threat to the titular hero than The Firm is to Sam.

And, of course, most of the gangsters who come after Sam are Russian. Russian seems to be the default for gangs in a movie, and I'd like to propose a two-year moratorium on that trope. Find a new nationality for gangsters in action movies going forward.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

I wanted to like "Gunpowder Milkshake." Hell, I wanted to be over the moon for this movie, but Gillan's performance is just so difficult to overcome.

Strong women are great characters to put in a movie, but you've got to write them well just like any other character.

"Gunpowder Milkshake" is one of those movies that straddles the line that separates good films from bad films. The librarians, action scenes, and camera work are all impressive. Talk about a mixed bag.

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