Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ Goes Down Smooth

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Every once in a while, a movie looks good, breezes through its run time, and all in all, is a decent enough time. Gunpowder Milkshake is pure eye candy, with cool-looking sets and lively camera work. It has talent behind and in front of the camera and yet still feels hollow.

Navot Papushado’s film is a ballet of violence and action set to an array of folk-rock songs. Papushado and his cameraman Micahel Seresin are the real stars of Gunpowder Milkshake. Every scene is framed, composed, and lit with a type of obsessive perfection. Taken for what it is, the film is a visual confection of guns and broken bones.

It’s a blast; even if it starts to wear out, it’s welcome toward the end. But as much as Papushado and Seresin infuse the film with kinetic framing and charismatic set design, there doesn’t seem to be much holding it up. As a result, Gunpowder Milkshake feels at times like something created both by someone’s passion and an algorithm. 

Written by Papushado and Ehud Lavski, the film is set in a world that feels more like an idea than a fleshed-out world. In a sense, imagine John Wick but in a world in which the rules are never explored or laid out. The world of Gunpowder Milkshake has rules, but they seem more abstract. They exist, but it’s never quite clear what happens if you break them.

For example, the meeting place between The Firm, an organization that trains and hires assassins, and the killers, is an exaggerated 1950’s diner. Upon entering the diner, a waitress stops you and asks if she can “lighten your load.” It’s code for taking any guns the person may have. But we see people lie to the waitress, and there seem to be no repercussions.

Depending on who you are, this may either drive you nuts or make it somehow more believable. For myself, I vacillated between the two and landed somewhere in between. The world of Gunpowder Milkshake is chaotic and violent; its characters tend to view the societal construct however they see fit in order to stay alive.

The anarchic spirit might rub some the wrong way, but I couldn’t help but be charmed by the overall sheer spectacle of it all. Gunpowder Milkshake will not move you; it will not make you cry or lead you to pontificate about the state of the world today. Instead, it will have you applauding like a caffeine-pumped seal as Lena Headey runs in slow motion and jumps off a librarian desk, a pistol in each hand, roaring with anger, at the swarm of hitmen trying to kill her daughter.

The film’s most significant weak point comes from that it has a powerhouse cast of leading ladies but gives them precious little to do. We’re talking Karen Gillan as Sam, Headey as Scarlett, Michelle Yeoh as Florence, Angela Bassett as Anna May, and Carla Gugino as Madeline. All of whom commit acts of brutal violence at one point or another. I almost forgot Emily (Chloe Coleman), an eight-year-old who finds herself adopted by the murderous but caring pack. 

But they don’t have characters to play so much as the outlines for cardboard cutouts. Papushado and Lavski’s script is only interested in the story as it carries them from immaculately designed set to immaculately designed set. In a movie written, directed, shot, and edited by men, the women onscreen feel little more than dolls, and at times it can be disconcerting.

Still, everyone does their best to wring what they can out of the scraps of character they have been given. Not to mention, how many other films have I seen filled from ship to stern with men with even less story and less dazzling camera set-ups that I have loved vociferously without any qualms whatsoever? It seems almost hypocritical to hold Gunpowder Milkshake to this standard while I unabashedly love Tango & Cash despite the latter not being half as visually impressive.

Taking Papushado’s operatic mishmash of popular culture at face value, every frame of Gunpowder Milkshake shimmers and shimmies with a vitality that makes the movie fly by. Papushado swings between choreographing his fights like dance sequences or something out of a videogame. One scene, a massive shootout in the armory disguised as a library, has Gillan frantically searching through books for guns and ammo and coming across items more useful for a different side quest.

Gunpowder Milkshake is one of those movies where it’s not so much about story and character but a vibe. Gillan’s wounded heroine is someone we root for primarily because we like seeing Gillan kick butt, not because we hope she is reunited with her mother.

The violence is blase at times and brutal at others. Yeoh’s and Bassett’s characters each have kills that feel visceral and painful. Seresin’s framing and Nicolas De Toth’s editing make the impact of the kills feel gruesome and will most likely have you, as it did me, squirming. 

There’s a fight at the doctor’s office where Sam’s arms have been paralyzed, so she has Emily tape a knife and a gun to her hands. The ensuing fight is a mixture of Jerry Lewis and classic Yeoh or Cynthia Rothrock. Gillan’s Sam swings her arms like a living arm-flailing inflatable tube woman as she has to fight three men high on laughing gas. There’s a running gag in the fight where Sam stabs someone but can’t get the knife out, and she has to drag the knife out instead of pulling it. 

The fight is almost cartoonish. Yet, it is also gruesomely hilarious and inventive in a way that you have to admire it on some level.

Some may feel that the film is a waste of the women involved. But they seem to be having a good time, up to and including, heavily implying that Headey’s Scarlett and Bassett’s Anna May were a couple at one point. The film never says one way or the other, cowardice on the filmmakers’ part, regrettably all too typical cowardice inside or outside major studios. But it’s there, and you don’t even have to squint to read it as such.

Gunpowder Milkshake is an action movie that cares more about looking good than anything else. In that, it succeeds, and then some, even if it feels like a jumble of other movies. It is a movie that can be distilled from “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” to just “Bang Bang.”

Image courtesy of Netflix

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