When a high-risk job goes wrong, hitwoman Sam must choose between serving The Firm and protecting the life of an innocent child, helped by her mother and three lethal librarians.
This is another film with an assassins’ underground world hiding in plain sight within ours. Parallel universes bumping up against each other, they are all similar (’50s-styled, neon lit, neutral meeting places) but slightly different. Assassins seem to be very big on libraries, for which they should be applauded, though we will gloss over the ease with which actual librarians destroy the books, cutting out big holes in the pages in which to hide their murderous paraphernalia.
Gunpowder Milkshake starts off like space dust sweets, all-too-briefly crackling on the tongue before dissolving to nothing; though it does pick up later, dragging us along for the ride.
It looks good — glowing golden light, jewel colours, comic book action, dusty old books, a ’50s diner — but the tone is all over the place, and the talented cast seem utterly confused as to what they should be aiming for.
Even leaving aside its debt to he who must not be named, this still struggles to find its feet. At times it’s deliberately hilarious, at others it reminded me of a French and Saunders movie parody. Some of the dialogue is witless, and the story is, frankly, a bit basic. It can be summed up as three groups of killers turning up in each others’ territories and shooting, stabbing, strangling and hacking each other to death. The big all-out fight scenes aside, escapes never seem particularly tricky, and the ending, despite its violence, feels like a bit of a damp squib.
Sam (Karen Gillan) is a lonely 20-something hitwoman, employed by The Firm to protect them and clean up their messes. Her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) disappeared 15 years before, after killing someone she probably shouldn’t have; now she’s back, just as Sam finds herself having to look after 8 year old Emily (Chloe Coleman), whose father has been taken out after stealing money from the more reputable, business arm of Sam’s employers.
Backing Sam and Scarlet up are three librarians: leader Anna-May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Madeleine (Carla Gugino), who are as familiar with a machine gun as with the dewey-decimal system.
With The Firm after the money Emily’s dad stole, and rival crime boss Jim McAlester determined to exact brutal revenge after Sam kills his son, she and her erstwhile family have to take on murderers from all sides to protect Emily and live to see another day.
The action scenes are zingy, thuddy and squelchy, even if most we’ve seen before; though I did enjoy one in a hospital where everyone has something holding them back (major injuries, usually). It’s fun to see a scrap slowed down not as a cinematic device but because they’re all semi-incapacitated, where fighters have to use their newly-discovered ineptitude to their advantage; and it makes a change after so many beautiful but deadly brawls requiring synonyms for “elegant” and “balletic”. (For non-Doctor Who fans, Gillan is an ex-companion of the 11th Doctor, and one car fight scene in a parking garage, the black vehicles spinning round back and forth with gun-toting goons hanging of the windows, actually reminded me of… the Daleks.)
There are some nice details: McAlester (Ralph Ineson) has so many thugs working for him they have to go everywhere on an actual bus, like a school trip of meatheads; the hollowed-out library books turn out to be a lucky dip of weaponry both high and low-tech when Sam needs them in a hurry.
I said the plot was basic, though really this is about family, with McAlester avenging the death of his son, and Sam reconnecting with her mother and becoming a big sister figure for Emily (who repeatedly refers to herself as Sam’s apprentice, so obvious is it that Sam is not the traditional mothering type). The librarians, who Sam and Scarlet had stayed with years earlier, are “aunts”.
McAlester appears little, though he has an intriguing conversation with Sam where he most blames her over the death of his son because it’s left him a stranger in a sea of daughters. It’s an interesting riff on the idea of family and (for him) the masculine world of underworld justice, in a world where he’s pitted against five women he also doesn’t understand, who don’t fit any traditional idea of motherhood yet are certainly maternal, and always have each other’s backs.
Gillan is fine as the young woman forced to trust others, and finding those bonds not so bad; though her light is rather dimmed against the glow of her co-stars. Every time the Librarians appeared I just wanted more of them — their backstories, and day to day lives — and not just three women shooting up the joint.
Despite the film’s odd tone and derivative ideas, after the rather cringy first half hour it improves. It’s still a savoury soufflé — a deliciously cheesy crust, always at risk of collapsing into its own extremely wobbly foundations — but its regular massive fights, gloomily multicoloured sets and charismatic older female stars just about give it enough oomph to make it to the (rather unsatisfactory) ending.
That denouement sets us up for a sequel, which — despite my review — I’d rather like to see, particularly if it goes full on trashy B-movie rather than comic book feminist-lite. And more on the Librarians, please.
Gunpowder Milkshake is out in UK cinemas and on Sky Cinema on 17 September 2021. It’s also available on streaming service NOW via the Sky Cinema Pass
Missed something during the film? Check out my article, Gunpowder Milkshake ending explained.
Watch the trailer now: