by Paul Deeter
If Hollywood strikes gold once with a film, especially if the film is not connected to a larger franchise, it's inevitable the formula will be used again and again in hope for continued success. Such successful films like 2014's John Wick, a franchise starter that took a risk with a new director (Chad Stahelski) and a familiar but rusty lead performance via Keanu Reeves, would open the floodgates for seemingly endless shoot-em-up clones. The original John Wick was not just a landmark for Keanu, it re-established the genre's ability to use an R-Rating to the benefit of the film's unedited violence and excess. If an R-Rated John Wick could quadrupole its budget in a climate of PG-13 action ficks, then modern audiences were ready for more. Shortly after this release, Part Two was announced, and then films like Ben Affleck's The Accountant (2016) and Charlize Theron's Atomic Blonde (2017) started popping up like daisies, to mixed success. A move from the restrictions of a PG-13 rating made studios loosen up on modern action and make way for the return of the shoot-em-up genre, which seemed to disappear in the early 2000's. It was no wonder these films were few and far between in a climate of U.S. gun violence that was unpredictable and easier to blame on mass media than actual easily acquirable gun ownership... but let's stay off that topic. (Today at least.)
So with an overly saturated climate of trigger happy shoot-em-ups re-emerging in the box office, the "saminess" of the concept of a once retired assassin being thrown back into the action is at risk of losing steam. Luckily in 2021 we were gifted a phenomenal lead performance by Bob Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell, or a 'nobody' in the incredible action film Nobody. Derek Kolstad knew what he was doing with this reversion of the typical John Wick project, because he is actually the creator of the original film this borrows so liberally from. And Nobody is as boiled down an action film can get, we're given a man whose life fell so far into simplicity that he almost craved the fight he'd been out of for decades. The film follows a simple revenge arc, but it's not truly unearned by the emotional commitment by Odenkirk. He also insisted on doing all of his own stunt-work for the movie (which may have had a toll on his overall health recently) and this authenticity adds to the visceral nature of the film's action. With additional performances by RZA and Christopher Lloyd, and a lean, mean comedic tone throughout all the bloodshed, Nobody kicks ass. And in the end, it made millions and earned an 84% on Rotten Tomatoes. It's a success not only for the many elements that make it work visually and thematically, but it also stands out for the not-so-subtle idea of casting an old-comedian with no prior action roles into a hero-role. It's practically inspirational. I think by 2021 that for an action film in this realm to stand out, it needs to twist that lead, or take other steps to subvert the narrative.
Gunpowder Milkshake is not a carbon copy of John Wick, nor does it follow the arc of the returned assassin to the battlefield after years of retirement. Instead we meet Sam, played by Karen Gillan, whose life has set itself on the assassin course ever since her estranged hitman mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) leaves her to fend for herself from a young age. She falls in with a dark-entity of hitmen and women who are under the rule of shadow bosses that pull the strings for "no-ask" missions. A little bit of a misunderstanding leads to Sam shooting a desperate father who fell in too deep with another gangrun entity, run by Jim McAlister (the father of a henchmen killed by Sam). The father stole money to save his kidnapped 8 (and three quarters) aged daughter named Emily, and Sam finds it her duty and maybe redemption to save Emily even when it puts her in this rival gang's crosshairs. And the journey we get from there takes us into gunfights, knife-fights, and many other form of prop-related fighting. A.V. Club gave the film a B overall touting the solidness of the cast and the action sequences, which are definitely inventive. (Caroline Siede's review of the film is title 'Gunpowder Milkshake is a better Jackie Chan homage than a John Wick riff.') The action scenes are frenetic and frequent, and truly showcase the movie's edge over its counterparts. Karen Gillan works through flips and kicks and various other acrobatics as she fights off faceless henchman in bowling alleys, a hospital hallway and eventually a multi-leveled library. I'd argue on top of the action, the action setting is what makes the film unique. We aren't fighting in warehouses or cordoned off generic sets, and the props in each scene (i.e. a bowling ball used to break bones in an alley) add to the movie's creativity. Another benefit of the the movie is in the performance by Chloe Coleman as Emily, who's a true talent as an innocent kid but never a damsel in distress, proving as ambitious as the many other older female assassins in the film.
I should not the importance of the female characters, because there's no actual presence of 'good guy' assassins in the movie. The entire protagonist force is through this Sisterhood of Assassins (our inevitable reunion with Scarlet comes through this story device), and the entire antagonistic force is made up of male assassins and henchmen. There's our differential from films like John Wick and Nobody for example, while we've had gun-wielding female bad-asses in prior shooter films, this movie is practically a battle of the sexes. Not to say there's any gender politics at bay, in fact that's maybe where the movie falters most. The many great faces including Headey, Angela Bassett and Carla Gugino are practically nameless, they kick ass but don't establish themselves with any sort of background. For example, Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times stated, "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." Even with the positivity of the A.V. Club's support for the film, they admit the decision to make this movie an entirely female led feature doesn't quite hit home. Siede says: "Though Gunpowder Milkshake was written, directed, produced, lensed, edited, and scored by men, the movie’s press has been eager to tout it as a story of “female empowerment.” But there’s not any particular depth to what the movie has to say about the female experience or the nature of relationships between women..." Even with the positivity for the film it seems that Milkshake left a bad taste for many critics with its otherwise clueless character conventions. I wonder if the ad campaign for the film leaned on the fact that this was a female led movie, maybe an outlier because of that, despite proving to have nothing to say on the subject. For example, Atomic Blonde doesn't address the nature of the gay relationship Theron has in the movie. Unfortunately that feels like a case of sex appeal layed on top of the action to draw in bigger crowds. This movie on the other hand doesn't lean on sex appeal, but it doesn't do much to define the action as anything truly empowering or significant.
Another criticism could be garnered in the action, which is quite bloody even for the genre. Heads are shot galore, faces smashed and limbs are brutalized over the course of our just under two hour runtime. There's certain joy in the mindless violence of the John Wick franchise, but part of what makes those movies work is the almost dancy choreography to the violence. Gunpowder Milkshake is very well choreographed. The blood-letting is earned in my opinion, by scenes like one which has Sam taping guns and knives to her numbed hands after being dosed with a paralyzing agent. As she waves her arms wildly, she manages to fumble her way through a violent dance with multiple henchman who are also (don't ask why) high off-their-brains on laughing gas. The elements of physical humor are perhaps the draw to Jackie Chan that Siede made, as Jackie Chan was a truly prop-based Chaplinesque fighter. But Chaplin was never truly violent like this film, and I believe despite the action that the violence, on top of the issues with the characterization of the leads, led this film to saunter around a 64% on Rotten Tomatoes. But unfortunately to superfans, the real lull comes in a non-committal performance from Gillan, who knows how to roll with the best of them, but doesn't seem to care enough in her actual performance of Sam. I may catch heat for this opinion, but Gillan has struggled with roles before. She's a nerd-icon and certainly quite an action star, but her emotional presence in performances leave a lot to desire. I think Gillan does fine as Sam, but I don't think she breaks the mold enough to make a film like Gunpowder Milkshake stand out as a solid action entry. It's a shoot-em-up with nothing new to offer the genre outside of the usually stellar action, and after a compilation of fight scenes inevitably make their way to YouTube or other streaming sites you can watch the only thing this film has to offer.