If you’re a guy on the receiving end of the wrath dispensed by the female assassins of “Gunpowder Milkshake” then your pride isn’t the only thing that’s getting crushed. Director Navot Papushado (“Big Bad Wolves”) dives into “Kill Bill” and “John Wick“ territory, for a stylized action flick that reminds us in the immortal words of James Brown, “This is a man’s world.” However, as the Godfather of Soul pointed out, “But it wouldn’t be nothing, without a woman or a girl“ which is why the male-dominated crime syndicate The Firm (headed by Paul Giamatti) relies on ace hit-woman Sam (Karen Gillan) to tie up its loose ends. But when she’s hung out to dry, the body count gets high as the bullets fly.
So how did 27-year-old Sam become such an accomplished assassin? Practice, of course, but also it runs in the family. Abandoned at the age of 12 by her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), an elite hired killer who was just trying to protect her daughter, then raised by The Firm’s crime boss Nathan (Giamatti), the young girl soon became a hot commodity in the underworld.
Dressed liked a dainty exorcist arriving to battle demons, Sam’s latest assignment — recover funds stolen from The Firm and take out the idiot thief — goes awry when the son of a ruthless gangster (Ralph Ineson) gets killed, the funds go kaboom, three “bonehead” hitmen dispatched by Nathan attempt to bring her in, and she becomes the caretaker of a cute 8 (and three quarters) year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) whose father she just killed.
There are many “John Wick” similarities in the film including a sanctuary for the criminal underworld where firearms are collected upon entering, like a scaled-down Continental Hotel. Here it’s a diner serving the best darn milkshakes, and the scene of the crime where Scarlet got banished after taking out some Russians in front of Sam when she was just an adolescent. There’s also a criminal physician Dr. Ricky (Michael Smiley) who does quick patch-up jobs for The Firm. He’s a little wacky and prone to getting high on laughing gas.
One of the film’s best fight scenes takes place at Dr. Ricky’s office as a temporarily incapacitated Sam (her arms are immobilized by an injection) takes on three wounded hitmen high on laughing gas. It’s well-choreographed — as are most of the fight scenes — and fun to watch.
Yet for all the similarities to the Keanu Reeves action franchise, Papushado’s film leans closer to a Tarantino aesthetic as “Kill Bill” comes to mind while watching these forceful ladies engage scores of hoodlums with an array of weapons that include guns, a bowling ball, tomahawk, chains, knives, and a set of hammers wielded by Angela Basset, one of the three “librarians” who run the bibliotheca that serves as a front for female assassins who need to restock. Carla Gugino and Michelle Yeoh are the other two librarians who come out of retirement for a thrilling finale that finds the three ladies fighting alongside Sam and Scarlet.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” has too much going for it to just discount it as “Wick”-lite. Karen Gillan who played Nebula in the MCU is convincing as the resolute assassin whose strength includes her frail appearance. Giamatti is perfect as the slimy crime boss, and Chloe Coleman is rather adorable as Sam’s young sidekick who, like Natalie Portman in “The Professional,” yearns to be an apprentice. The fight scenes are thrilling and the song selections, while a bit eccentric — Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” is used in a slow-mo super smash sisters brawl — they work. Like the recent Bob Odenkirk action-comedy “Nobody” it’s violent, quirky, and fun.
(3 ½ stars)
Premieres July 15 on Netflix