Jane Wick, by Bob Connally

15 Jul

After the release of Die Hard in 1988, action movies for the next decade imitated Die Hard. Then in 1999, The Matrix came along and action movies imitated that. Then it was the Bourne movies with their frenetic editing, but since 2014 the most imitated action film has been John Wick. From its trailer and based on part of its premise, it would appear that Navot Papushado’s Gunpowder Milkshake would be another in a long line of riffs on the Keanu Reeves franchise and while there are certainly similarities, there’s a more lighthearted tone here that some audiences may not appreciate. While Papushado’s film certainly has its issues, there’s an inventiveness and sense of fun to it all that make this well worthwhile. Just don’t expect the grit of Wick.

It’s been 15 years since Sam (Karen Gillan) last saw her mother, Scarlet (Lena Headey). One night as they shared a milkshake at their favorite ’50s-style diner, Scarlet’s life as a contract killer forced her to go on the run. Now Sam works for “The Firm” just as her mother did before her. After a job ends with her unwittingly killing the son of the wrong man, “The Firm’s” representative, Nathan (Paul Giamatti) informs her that she needs to exchange her current stockpile of weaponry for something new in order to carry out her next assignment. This compels Sam to visit a one-of-a-kind library that can provide her with what she needs. It’s run by three women (Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh) whom she hasn’t seen since she was a child. As for the assignment, Sam is tasked with retrieving some stolen cash. She quickly learns that the thief is an innocent man desperately trying to get back his 8-year old daughter, Emily (Chloe Coleman). According to Sam’s moral code, “Women are fair game,” but children are another story. Now she’ll take on whoever she has to in order to save Emily and hopefully herself in the process.

Over the past decade, Karen Gillan has been a part of some of the biggest franchises in the world (Doctor Who, the MCU, and the improbably wildly successful Jumanji sequels), while also starring in several smaller movies between the blockbusters (even writing and directing a very good independent film in her native Scotland, The Party’s Just Beginning). While she has showcased a wide range of talents as an actress, it’s her comedic and action abilities that have stood out the most and Gunpowder Milkshake is a terrific showcase for those. For the first two-thirds of the film anyway. Three sequences in particular stand out as the creative and somewhat goofy action fun that Papushado excels at here. Gillan really shines through these scenes with her understanding of the tone and what to bring to the performance. She also plays very well off of Coleman, with Sam taking on less of a mother role but that of a reluctant big sister. It’s a nice dynamic and it makes the middle third of Gunpowder Milkshake particularly good.

It’s not going to surprise anyone that eventually Sam and her mother are reunited and Gillan and Headey play their icy dynamic very nicely. In reality, Headey is only 14 years older than Gillan but they manage to sell the mother-daughter relationship with their performances.

The film’s final half-hour is something of a disappointment though, not because the action sequences don’t work as action sequences (they definitely do), but because Sam ends up really taking a backseat in her own story. While there is certainly a lot of fun to be had seeing Headey, Gugino, Bassett, and Yeoh get in on the action as well, it’s as though Papushado forgot to let his protagonist be his protagonist. We like the other characters, yes, but this isn’t their story. It’s an odd choice to make and while it certainly doesn’t sink the movie, in terms of storytelling, it’s a letdown.

As an inevitable comparison to the John Wick films, those are all much stronger than this though Gunpowder Milkshake is never trying to be that really. Papushado borrows from a lot of other filmmakers here including Sergio Leone, Edgar Wright, and Jackie Chan. It’s a pastiche that feels like it’s also based on a graphic novel even though it isn’t. It doesn’t have the razor-sharp edges of the Wick movies but this wants to be something else and had it tried to be that, it almost certainly wouldn’t have worked at all.

Gunpowder Milkshake is an entertaining, inventive, and mostly lightweight action movie with very engaging performances and enough of a heart to care about its story. While it makes some missteps, it would be a shame for it to be dismissed out of hand for not being something that it isn’t really trying to be. It is now available on Netflix.

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