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Review: The imitative assassin wreck ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ insults its audience at every turn

Two women each brandishing two handguns in the movie “Gunpowder Milkshake.”
Lena Headey, left, and Karen Gillan in the movie “Gunpowder Milkshake.”
(Reiner Bajo / StudioCanal SAS)

Movies about lethal renegades leaving behind large body counts — a lineage from James Bond to John Wick — have only one job, when you think about it: to keep us from thinking, “Hmm, that person would be dead by now.”

So sacred a compact between action purveyor and audience member — suspension of disbelief, in exchange for diligent craft — is broken so quickly in the glossy, imitative assassin wreck “Gunpowder Milkshake” that site inspection from the couch is all that’s left. In an early flashback scene set in a neon-and-Naugahyde diner, a sullen 12-year-old girl complains that her killer-for-hire mom Scarlet (Lena Headey) is three hours late, and what the deflated moviegoer’s checklist mind-set notices is not a central mother/daughter dynamic setting up the whole movie, but a perfect prop milkshake that couldn’t possibly have been sitting out for three hours.

Buzzkill attitude? Possibly. But was it triggered by a retro-‘50s-style eatery for the hired-gun set that’s like a mythology touch lazily cribbed from the John Wick universe of workaday assassins with hideouts in plain sight? Absolutely. Heightened reality doesn’t mean insulting the audience. There are movies that pull you into their own wild, weird world, and movies desperate for you to notice them doing that. “Gunpowder Milkshake,” directed and co-written by Navot Papushado, is the latter, an empty-headed cartoon of slaughter and laminated feminism that is a 25-years-too-late argument for women being action bad asses (who needs convincing still?), as well as never-too-late proof that the Tarantino homage genre needs its own snuffing out.

In this case, She Who Must Not Be Trifled With is Sam (Karen Gillan), the diner preteen all grown up and now in the same lonely profession as the mom who disappeared on her years ago. Same employer, too, a mysterious group of men called the Firm, who unfortunately aren’t so loyal when one of Sam’s messier jobs — which puts an orphaned 8-year-old girl (Chloe Coleman) in her care — threatens to start a crime syndicate war.

The aforementioned deflated moviegoer is by now thinking, “Well, if she’s going to indiscriminately kill the wrong people, doesn’t that make her bad at her job?” But there’s still hope for the mayhem-loving optimist when one realizes there are choreographed showdowns with many goons coming. Until those moments arrive, that is, and they’re … just OK. A little bit of slapstick gore here, martial arts combat there, with John Woo shootout shout-outs and Park Chan-wook hat-tips and more John Wick reminders, but nothing you’d say was terribly consistent or cathartic as violent ballet.

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Where great action showcases build appreciation for the actor at the center of it — how, for example, they burnished the star power of Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron — Gillan seems swallowed up by the requirements of the job. (Hence, those nagging feelings that Sam, a sorely underdeveloped character in tone and purpose, would be a goner six times over before the ending.) That character mindfulness is, of course, the director’s responsibility, but Papushado’s sense of style is so slickly presentational — again, because he’s driven by homage, not originality, as with Frank Ilfman’s loudly winking Morricone-esque score — that it’s more of an action gallery, not a blood-pumping story accelerated by its flights of fury.

What’s left? The ill-at-ease dark humor of a child exposed to so much carnage for the sake of a cute intergenerational parenting theme; an overwrought interior design that makes every set look like an emptied nightclub; the misuse of Headey’s bad-mom-good-mom energy; and the even worse misuse of tough/beautiful icons Michelle Yeoh, Angela Bassett and Carla Gugino as maternal “librarians” in a bookcase-lined cathedral who traffic in guns, wisdom, and vengeance.

I felt saddest for this veteran support staff, shackled by a movie that cares more about weapon fetishizing and lip service to protective sisterhood than giving these women a truly energizing, organically empowering fantasy fight to the death. Rather, the brain went to, “Gugino just closed a van door and then gave the little girl the ‘ssssh’ sign, but wouldn’t the closing of the door make a pretty loud sound?”

'Gunpowder Milkshake'

Rated: R for strong bloody violence throughout and language

Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes

Playing: Available on Netflix


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