“Gunpowder Milkshake” spotlights powerful women

Sarah Buchmann

Image by: Liam Killian

2021 tried to be the year of movies with ultra-feminist characters: “Black Widow” with Natasha and Yelena Romanov, “The Suicide Squad” with Harley Quinn, “Raya and the Last Dragon” with Raya and even “Cruella” could be argued to support the “girl boss” mentality. But none of these blockbuster hits even came close to the film phenomenon “Gunpowder Milkshake”.

 Released mid-July this year, the Netflix original surpasses all female-centric action movies with its star-studded cast and fantastic direction from Navot Papushado. Papushado is an indie Israeli film director and screenwriter, accredited to only four other relatively unknown films. From a technical standpoint, the movie was destined to be a hit due to its impeccable lighting, costumes and soundtrack, but the overall storyline lacks originality and inspiration.

Sam, played by Karen Gillan, grew up in a life of crime syndicates, cold-blooded murder and vigilante justice. When her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) abandoned her at a young age, Sam was forced to follow in Scarlet’s footsteps. Sam eventually becomes the top assassin for a mob community called The Firm. 

The professional hitwoman kills a man right as he is bargaining for his daughter Emily’s (Chloe Coleman) life, Sam takes pity on Emily and takes the eight year old under her wing. In doing so, Sam makes enemies of a rival Russian mafia group, who will do everything in their power to stop and kill Sam and Emily. 

Along the way, Sam teams up with her mother’s old friends, the “librarians”. This trio of older women shield themselves in an old library where they hide weapons in books and help arm Sam in her battle – the library itself is reminiscent of the extensive armory in the “Kingsman” movies. This movie is one long action sequence, but the technical effects are what make it a must-see.

One of the opening scenes is in a classic Tarantino-style diner: a waitress in a teal and white uniform with tacky lipstick, fluorescent lighting, linoleum checkered tiles and red and white pleather booths. It’s the quintessential feel-good diner – but as soon as the guns start firing and blood is splattered everywhere, the macabre scene feels ridiculously dissonant in the cheery diner. Sam soon finds herself in an empty bowling alley, where the only lighting comes from the neon panels above the pins. Incidentally, these are also the colors of the bisexual pride flag and Sam makes several comments regarding her queer sexuality – this only accentuates the intentionality of the choices made by production designer David Scheunemann. 

The 80’s neon lighting works hand-in-hand with the costume department when Sam puts on a satin orange and white bowling jacket. The colors give an eerie vibe as Sam waits for her next targets to enter the alley. In perfect bowling form, she strikes an enemy’s skull with a ball, adding another splash of red.

The cinematic and technical beauty doesn’t stop there. The “librarians”, played by Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett, have their own color schemes throughout the movie. Madeleine (Gugino) typically wears oranges and reds, Florence (Yeoh) wears a vintage green jumpsuit and Anna May (Bassett) leads the trio in a strikingly classy blue three-piece. They’re essentially a more extreme version of the Powerpuff Girls. 

The women’s color schemes are also represented in the fight scene throughout the library. Madeleine defends Emily in the library’s brick garage with a rust-colored theme, Florence takes down criminals in the jungle-themed children’s section of the library and Anna May holds her own in the blue-lit aquarium section. Sam’s orange and white jacket, along with Emily’s yellow puffer jacket, also find their way in the midst of all of these scenes, bringing a young, light energy into a bloodstained battlefield. 

The special effects in the movie were also done very well. With all the blood and gore involved with contract killings, there’s a reason why this movie is rated R – and the special effects department went full out, showing each kill in detail. Similar to the opening killing sequence in “Deadpool”, the final fight in the diner was in slow-motion and exaggerated every shot. Bullets flew out of the back of skulls as heads exploded on impact and blood spattered the walls of the diner like a Jackson Pollock painting. 

Other scenes include a man hung by chains and a large model of a tooth falling and smashing a man’s face. This movie is definitely not for the faint of heart – the gore is enough to make most audiences queasy. But, it is not without its lighter moments either. Sam throws in quips and one-liners before each kill, adding a bit of humor to the script. 

While some IMDB users have said these pre-kill jokes are “awkward” and “mindless”, I would argue the tone of the movie is not supposed to be serious. It is a campy, comic thriller and Sam’s witty yet cheesy dialogue is only fitting.

This movie is a two-hour rollercoaster with family trauma, abandonment issues, guns blazing and powerful women. The cinematography alone is what makes it a worthwhile watch, but the story is intriguing enough to make you continue. While The Guardian and the Roger Ebert website both give “Gunpowder Milkshake” two out of five stars, I side with IMDB (six out of ten) and Rotten Tomatoes (three out of five) to give it that extra bump up. If you’re in the mood for a mindless girl-power action thriller this weekend, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is the way to go.