The impressive success of the John Wick films is much like the success of any franchise – if one studio has achieved it, another wants to duplicate it. So the existence of Gunpowder Milkshake, a new Netflix action film that feels reverse-engineered to draw in enough viewers to inspire at least one or two follow-up entries, is only surprising because it took so long for a studio to nakedly try to create its own John Wick.
But as the old saying goes, a child prodigy may know the notes, but they still don’t know the music. Gunpowder Milkshake broadly tiptoes around what made John Wick work, but does so in a glib and hollow fashion. There’s a lot of flash and style, and all in service of an empty story with unmemorable gunplay.
Karen Gillan stars as Sam, a single-minded young assassin who works for a shadowy group called The Firm, which is made up of a lot of old white men in suits who control…well, to hear her tell it, they control everything. She’s watched over by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), a kindly member of the Firm’s HR group, which basically means he’s the guy who tells her who to kill, where, and when. After one job goes a bit pear-shaped, Nathan gives Sam her new assignment: retrieving cash stolen by a Firm accountant who’s in over his head. But that job goes even more pear-shaped: she inadvertently kills the nebbish, leaving behind his unassuming daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman). Since Sam herself was left orphaned by her mother (Lena Headey) 15 years ago, she gets guilty enough to drag Emily along on the rest of her now bloodier adventure, as she tries to keep the girl safe while killing some more bad guys and coming into contact with friends of her mother’s, all of whom are – like her – secret badass assassins.
Co-writer and director Navot Papushado – best known in the States among indie crowds for directing the thriller Big Bad Wolves – wants very badly for Gunpowder Milkshake to be cool and slick, seemingly as inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s films as by the work of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch in the John Wick movies. (The film’s title is mostly nonsense, but whenever Sam meets up with Nathan, it’s at a 1950s-era diner with a big old-school milkshake with two straws jutting out of the glass.) But the problem is that the harder this movie tries to be cool, the more it struggles to actually be cool. Where Gunpowder Milkshake really stumbles is in trying to depict R-rated violence, replete with CG blood spatter, in a glib and cheeky manner. It’s not enough for Papushado to do a slow-motion tracking shot through the diner as Sam and her mother’s fellow assassins (played by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh) lay waste to handfuls of faceless baddies, but we have to hear an upbeat number on the soundtrack to play off the faux-bloody violence. It’s tired.
Papushado, too, doesn’t always stage the action in impressive fashion. It’s nowhere near as incomprehensible as some modern action fare tends to be, but again, in a film inviting comparisons with John Wick, it’s hard to measure up, as much of the action happens all too quickly with jump cuts and rapid-fire editing. The cast is up to the task of the violence, with Gillan (unfortunately saddled with an American accent masking her native Scottish brogue) doing a fine riff on characters like John Wick and the T-800 from T2, as she plays off the blandly precocious Coleman. Headey, Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh are all fun (though they’re mostly only present in the second half), but playing roles they could do in their sleep.
That’s frankly how Gunpowder Milkshake feels as a whole – this is a movie that has sprung up out of existence less from creative desire than from a series of checkboxes and an unwieldy blend of past, better action films. Putting together a cast this talented either means that it’ll be somewhat frustrating to watch them stranded in fare that they’re too good for, or that the result will be an energetic blast. Sadly, Gunpowder Milkshake is the former. All of these actors are too good to appear in what ends up being such a rote, uninspired affair. For a studio like Netflix to see the success of John Wick and want to find something like that for themselves is perfectly logical. Who wouldn’t want to create a franchise out of whole cloth like that? But it’s hard enough to capture lightning in a bottle. Gunpowder Milkshake is as if the studio tried to force lightning into a bottle, and only got left with a stray spark or two.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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