Career killer gets stuck with a cute kid. It’s a great story premise, and one that has led to many a action movie classic, from True Grit to Terminator 2. In Gunpowder Milkshake, the Netflix neon noir from Israeli director Navot Papushado, the set-up works its magic again. Here, the career killer is professional assassin Sam (Karen Gillan), who learned the family business from single mom Scarlet (Game of Thrones‘ Lena Headey) before she abandoned Sam 15 years ago after a job gone wrong. When Sam gets hired by all-powerful shadow organization The Firm to retrieve some stolen money, it seems like just another case… until she realizes 8-year-old Emily’s (Big Little Lies‘ Chloe Coleman) life is at stake. Sam is no hero. She does terrible things in this very movie, but, like other action movie killers before her, Sam has a code: she draws the line at children getting killed, and that means using her particular set of skills for objective good this time.
Gunpowder Milkshake wants so very much to be a kick-ass, feminist action movie—and it is, if only by virtue of its squad of formidable woman fighters. Unfortunately, in the process, it forgets to invest in an emotionally logical narrative too. Gender-bending the traditional dynamics of an action noir is a great starting point for something new and different, but it doesn’t make a story. While Gunpowder Milkshake has some fuzzy things to say about parenting, found family, and queer community, it never commits to any of those themes. Because of this, the film’s emotional stakes aren’t as high as they could be, undercutting some of the truly great action in this film.
Lucky for Gunpowder Milkshake (and for us), the film has many qualities outside of the thinness of its narrative, most especially its visual style. Director Papushado, who also co-wrote the Gunpowder Milkshake screenplay with Ehud Lavski, creates a color-saturated playground for the gory engagements of the city’s criminal underworld. The kineticism of his cinematography is reminiscent of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman and the color palette has much in common with David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, but (unlike the film’s plot) the visual style of Gunpowder Milkshake is too dynamic, rich, and specific to feel derivative. That visual clarity applies to the fight sequences as well, which are as clever as they are decipherable—two adjectives too rarely applied to contemporary Hollywood action filmmaking these days.
The film brings together a cast of talented physical performers to deliver on the action, most notably the iconic Michelle Yeoh, who is underutilized in the film’s supporting cast, which also includes Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Paul Giamatti, and The Witcher‘s Freya Allan. As fans of The Sarah Connor Chronicles will know, Headey knows her way around a roundhouse kick, and slips back into the badass action mom role as if she never left it. But the brunt of the fight choreography falls to Gillan. The actor-director made famous by Doctor Who first demonstrated her action chops as Nebula in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but her action work there and in the Jumanji franchise is contained to the occasional, climactic fight sequence, and often as part of an ensemble. Here, Gillan is the protagonist leading the action, and she steps up to each unique challenge—from acting multiple scenes without the use of her arms to taking out a gaggle of goons with a panda-shaped rolling suitcase and some bowling balls.
It’s no longer enough to simply slot women into the place of men in an action movie and call it a day—if it ever was. Gunpowder Milkshake is a vibrant and entertaining movie, but its lack of a strong theme or logical story rob it of becoming a great film. If you’re looking for a movie filled with talented, badass women showing off their action performance chops, there is something for you in Gunpowder Milkshake. If you’re looking for the movie to use all of that style to do something radical with its inherent subversive premise, then you will come away disappointed.
Gunpowder Milkshake will be available in the U.S., Canada, and the Nordic countries on Netflix on July 14. It will be released in theaters internationally on July 15.