Gunpowder Milkshake review: A stylish, female-centric riff on John Wick

Gunpowder Milkshake. Karen Gillan as Sam in Gunpowder Milkshake. Cr. REINER BAJO/STUDIOCANAL © 2021
Gunpowder Milkshake. Karen Gillan as Sam in Gunpowder Milkshake. Cr. REINER BAJO/STUDIOCANAL © 2021 /

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in all honesty, the mythical “they” aren’t wrong here. It’s easy to see that Gunpowder Milkshake, Netflix’s neon-coated murder spree, owes a significant debt to many cinematic worlds that have preceded it, including but most especially the John Wick franchise, Atomic Blonde, and the Kingsman films.

A female-centric take on the assassin genre, Gunpowder Milkshake allows its leading ladies to revel in the violence they dish out, getting the chance to be just as smart, vicious, and downright deadly as any of their cinematic male counterparts. And its A-list cast, including such familiar faces as Angela Bassett and Lena Headey, is clearly having a blast shooting dudes in the face. (Or throwing axes at them. Whatever.)

Much like John Wick before it, if you’re watching Gunpowder Milkshake for the intricacies of its plot, you’re kind of doing it wrong. Yes, its narrative is paper-thin in places and often seems to consist of little more than someone deciding seemingly at random “Wouldn’t now be a great time to watch Michelle Yeoh hang a guy with a chain?”

And yet, the film’s propulsive energy and fantastic leading women consistently make it hard to look away from, even during the odd moments you realize that you’re basically watching someone’s female-focused Continental fanfic come to life.

Gunpowder Milkshake is a colorful, violent good time.

The story follows Samantha (Karen Gillan), a deadly assassin who works for a mysterious but clearly up to no good organization known as The Firm, just as her estranged mother Scarlet (Headey) did before her. She’s normally unfazed by much of what her job requires her to do, whether that’s mowing down a squad of unidentified men or stitching up her own body while watching late-night TV.

But despite her life of violence, Sam does have a code – as the movies above have already taught us that all good assassins do – and when the eight-year-old girl daughter of a man she accidentally kills is left in danger, she steps up to save her life.

In order to do so, Sam will have to reckon with many aspects of her past, including her suddenly returned previously absentee mother and the squadron of butt-kicking older women who used to be a huge part of her life.

What follows is a sequence of highly stylized and wildly entertaining fight sequences, which allow the film’s cast of actresses the chance to shoot, stab, and roundhouse kick their enemies with abandon across a variety of fabulous settings. From a diner where customers are forced to leave their guns at the door to a fantastic library where the shelving system is based primarily on the weapons that can be found in each section, the world of this film is rich and interesting. (Every girl does need a Jane Austen, is what I’m saying.)

Yet, despite its occasionally extra vibes, Gunpowder Milkshake is a movie that isn’t afraid to make fun of itself or the genre it’s part of. From the  extended fight sequence that’s essentially a slapstick performance thanks to Sam being unexpectedly dosed with a paralytic to a getaway sequence where Emily, the aforementioned eight-year-old girl, is the primary driver, there’s plenty of action that’s both fun and funny to be had here, alongside the very artistic shots of people’s brains being literally blown out.

Carla Guigno, Angela Bassett, and Michelle Yeoh are clearly having the time of their lives as the three assassin librarians, but Gunpowder Milkshake is Karen Gillan’s movie from start to finish and, for those of us who first watched her all those years ago on Doctor Who, her subsequent evolution into a full fledged action star has been a delight to watch. She ably carries this film on her back, and performs more than a few truly fabulous sequences, most notably one in which Sam must take on a pack of nameless henchmen with little more than a bowling ball and a children’s panda-shaped suitcase.

Your mileage may vary on whether you consider this film to actually be feminist instead of simply a movie with multiple female characters at its center. But since we get so few of the latter in the first place, it’s difficult to be anything but thrilled that this film exists, in all its imperfect, neon, butt-kicking glory. I’d definitely watch more of Sam and her found family’s adventures, and I doubt I’m the only one.

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Gunpowder Milkshake is now available to stream on Netflix.