Another "Gunpowder Milkshake" Review
Vanilla with Whipped Cream and Sprinkles
Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead. Please do not continue reading if you have not watched "Gunpowder Milkshake." I'll proceed with some general observations - then I'll give the warning. It also helps to have some context if you've seen any of the John Wick films and "Nobody," because some small details (which would not ruin the movies) follow. After that, it's up to you to continue.
If you've been watching Hollywood action films since, well, you've been allowed to, you've probably noticed that various Russian crime families are easy targets to hoist up as villains. More recently, it's apparent in the John Wick franchise and "Nobody." The same thing goes for "Gunpowder Milkshake." While I'm not Russian myself, I do find it a sign of the West's fraught relationship with Russia that if we hear an actor with a Russian accent, we assume "bad" or "assassin." In rare cases, we see "Russian" characters as heroes - but only after they've lost their accents, such as the character of Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It was no surprise to find that the initial villains in "Gunpowder Milkshake" were Russian. I started to roll my eyes initially, since I found that films in the West seem to be getting lazy. However, I kept my eyes from doing a full roll and kept them on the screen, hoping to see where this was going.
Imagine if the John Wick films, Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2, and "Nobody" had a baby and left it up for adoption when it hit puberty. That is "Gunpowder Milkshake."
You have been given full warning. True spoilers begin now.
Imagine my surprise when the supposed Big Bad Guy is named "Jim McAlister." That's not exactly a traditional Russian name. I leaned forward, interested. Our protagonist, Sam (Karen Gillan), unknowingly killed McAlister's only son during a shoot-out based on "bad intel." Clearly, after being abandoned and placed in "The Firm"'s care, she followed in her mother, Scarlet's (Lena Headey) bloody footsteps. The leap from abandoned child in the hands of a shady HR representative (Paul Giamatti) to a skilled assassin made me have my first moment of suspension of disbelief. Surely we would get an explanation as to why Sam followed in her mother's footsteps, especially when she resented Scarlet's choices.
There's no payoff there. No explanation of a lonely childhood surrounded by violence. No short exposition on the clearly angry life Sam has lead so far. Nope. Later on in the film, you get a flimsy explanation from Scarlet that she had to make a run for it and leave Sam behind, to keep her safe, after killing the person who killed her husband (Sam's father). The Russian family involved wanted their revenge, culminating in the initial bloody scene at the diner that apparently acts as a criminal Switzerland, much like the Continental in the John Wick franchise.
Even more confusing are the strange visual cues in the film. Sam is seen giving herself stitches while eating Japanese cereal, watching anime, while wearing a shirt with katakana and hiragana. The hospital she ends up in after shooting a somewhat innocent guy in the stomach (oops) reminds me of the crisp, clean, private dental offices from when I was a child in Japan under the care of a wealthy aunt. Adding to my confusion to these Asian motifs was that Sam exits a French restaurant - are they in Vietnam, then? Singapore?
Adding to my confusion is seeing what appears to be the London Eye in the background, while the license plates on the cars we see appear to be German license plates. WHERE in the HELL is Sam?! No place names were mentioned, maybe on purpose, but the setting was so distracting that I couldn't get it out of my head. To make things worse, most of the protagonists and leads have American accents. The books in the ominous library all appear to be in English. The totally-not-the-Continental diner has an Americana 50's aesthetic, where the main greeter and waitress, Rose, has a clear American accent.
There is zero explanation for any of that. I had to look up production details to see that much of the shooting was done in Berlin. That made some of the outside shots make a little more sense, but then why was nothing apparently German? What was up with all of the Asian motifs? Why the cutesy kawaii panda backpack full of bank notes (in English) and panda cellphone, the likes I've only seen in Asian countries? Hell, even the flip phones (which you could dismiss as burner phones as I imagine getting an iPhone only to destroy it every other job would get expensive) remind me of the old SoftBank phone I had when I was twelve years old. WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? Where are we? Who are the librarians in relation to the Firm? What does the Firm do? Are they protecting the obtshak? Are the librarians an armory, or contractors?
I only learned from the Wikipedia article on the movie that Scarlet was apparently the leader of the librarians, a sisterhood of assassins (oh, okay then). This does not explain the anger of Anna May (Angela Basset) completely, especially when Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Madeleine (Carla Gugino) seem mostly ambivalent, or even pleased to see Scarlet again. Also, in the beginning of the film, Sam is able to walk into this library with no locks or clearance needed. As we see later in the film, some books are filled with cash, fake passports, and various weapons. Even the children's section is an elaborately decorated death trap where Florence snuffs out would-be killers with a chain that was BUILT INTO the set.
If there are cash and weapons all over the place, shouldn't the door be locked?! I'm just saying. I have nothing of value in my car and I drive a relatively old car, but I still lock it. Am I more paranoid than a sisterhood of ASSASSINS with cash all over the place? Later on, after business hours, the leading actors sneak in through a well-lit side door. Oooookay.
What I'm getting at is that if you want to enjoy the film, really, really suspend your disbelief. Don't expect any satisfying explanations as to who/what/what/where and why. They're not coming. Also, sweet Emily (Chloe Coleman) seems pretty willing to forgive Sam for icing her dear old dad. It also seems like she's probably going to grow up to be an assassin. Oy.
The color palette of the film is very reminiscent of the John Wick franchise. If the filmmakers had gone the steampunk route and desaturated the film a bit, I would have expected this story to be somehow related to "Suckerpunch." The explanations and motivations are just as weak. Here's the thing, though. I've read plenty of negative reviews for "Gunpowder Milkshake" (I'm not going to bother citing sources, just give it a quick Google or Bing), but my honest opinion: this was an incredibly enjoyable film.
The aesthetic worked for the strangely unsubstantive story. I expected more of a redemption arc for Scarlet or Sam, but I wasn't surprised when it didn't come to fruition. The music choices and cues are well done, though I highly recommend watching the film a second time with the subtitles on (if you're in the United States and you're watching this on Netflix). This is because I think the movie has the funniest subtitle I've ever read:
I had to pause the film to laugh and hold my abdomen. Holy CRAP.
The action used the right blends of real time speed and slowed-down sequences. As someone who has had any martial arts training at all, I cringed every time I saw someone turn their back on a combatant. While I've given plenty of critiques so far, I have to say that my truest, most sincere gripe is that they had the talents of Angela Basset, Carla Gugino, Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, and Michelle Yeoh, and barely did anything with them. Considering how many action films Gillan and Yeoh have been in, they could have been tapped to do more in the action sequences. I'm not complaining about the huge reservoir of untapped acting talent from the entire cast because I figure that's obvious enough by now.
If you have that kind of talent under your direction, and the best you can do is to ask Angela Basset to purse her lips when she's flummoxed, I think you don't realize what you have.
Granted, the film as it is runs just under two hours. It is entirely possible that the brilliance of the acting cast just wasn't brought to the forefront due to pacing cuts. I get that. This is an action film. At the same time, you have a story that involves a chosen family of sisters, an abandoned child, a reunion, AND an orphan seeing her father's recently deceased corpse, and none of that was used to get the audience to care? Sure, maybe you want to go with the principle "do, don't tell," but come on. Not every audience member was a huge nerd who took film classes for fun (cough, cough).
In the end, this was an enjoyable film that I'll probably watch a few more times to watch some of my favorite actors slam a combatant's face into a milkshake and wield heavy artillery. I recommend it if you haven't already watched it.
I'll leave you with my final thought, which seems appropriate that this is it: the title of the movie itself seems like a complete afterthought.