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It brings all the fun to the yard
A recurring gag in Gunpowder Milkshakeis all of the adults censoring themselves from dropping the F-bomb in front of Emily (Chloe Coleman), an eight-year-old girl who is rescued from baddies by Sam (Karen Gillan) in this highly stylized and Netflix action picture. The other actors, like Lena Headey (who plays Gillian's mother), Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino, wind up saying "fudge" instead. It's amusing on its own, but doubly ridiculous that they work to shelter young Emily from foul language, despite her being present for a carnival of brutal shootings, gruesome stabbings, shocking explosions, and blood-spraying mayhem.
Gunpowder Milkshake probably had the shortest elevator pitch in the history of Hollywood: "We had John Wick, well here comes Jane Wick." Quite frankly, the creators of the Keanu Reeves trilogy have a right to feel a little ripped off. Director Navot Papushado and his co-writer Ehud Lavski have built another world where everyone is some kind of hired killer or underworld personality. There's not a single character that you meet that is "outside" the warped reality of mobster offices, neutral ground diners, or libraries doing double-duty as a weapons depot.
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This sealed-off universe affords Papushado an opportunity to really floor it with the design. It only takes about two minutes to realize this isn't the "real world," so why not blend everything from hyper-kitsch neon 1950s Americana to the moody architecture of Mitteleuropa? (The movie was shot in Berlin.) It's set "now," but everyone has a flip phone. Karen Gillan first appears in extreme high contrast amidst primary colors, wearing a film noir get up. But she spends the bulk of the movie in a 1980s-looking bowling jacket.
There are story reasons for her to put that jacket on (she has to prove herself as unarmed to a group Universal Monsters-disguised thugs who have kidnapped the little girl, Emily) but this leads to an unusual problem. Gillan, with her red hair and juvenile jacket, very much reminded me of Ellie Kemper's Kimmy Schmidt. I'm sure Papushado and company were thinking this look was their answer to Ryan Gosling in his scorpion jacket from Drive, but when she started saying "fudge" my wife and I couldn't stop shouting "Kimmy Schmidt just sliced a guy's carotid artery!" every time she dispatched a villain.
This is not what anyone making Gunpowder Milkshake wanted, but I am not convinced it's a problem. What they wanted was for audiences to have a good time. This is not serious cinema. This is hyper-stylized violence with only a whiff of a story: Something something women can be just as good at murdering people as men. (I guess this is positive? Maybe?) So as long as we had an enjoyable two hours, mission accomplished, right?
While the John Wick facsimile plot is dull (no need for a thorough synopsis, it's all just a ruse for the fighting, and seeing Paul Giamatti scowl) there are some truly outstanding action sequences. One involves Kimmy — I mean, Sam — getting injected with some kinda drug that gives her no control of her arms. She asks Emily to tape a knife to one hand and a gun to the other (she can still move her fingertips to shoot) as she faces down three goons in something resembling Drunken Master style. It's really well choreographed and bloody and amusing.
There's also a brutal car chase in a garage that actually has horror-style jump scares. (Papushado's first two films, co-directed with Aharon Keshales, were the Hebrew language Rabies and Big Bad Wolves, both quite striking genre pictures.)
Another battle inside the library overdoes it with a bland needle-drop ("Piece of My Heart" sung by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company) but exploring the very imaginative set makes up for it. A later tableaux, a long, slow tracking shot of explosive, bloody chaos to The Animals's 1977 recording of Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" is much more impressive.
Do yourself a favor and don't dwell on the meaning of Gunpowder Milkshake. A surface reading is truly nihilistic: a glorification of violence as an extended family enterprise. But I'll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and say they knew they what they were doing. When mother and daughter look lovingly in one another's eyes and say "there's no one I would rather be killing people with than you" it's hard to take it all too seriously.
TV Guide rating: 3/5
Gunpowder Milkshake premieres Wednesday, July 14 on Netflix.