Lena Headey, Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, and Michelle Yeoh in Gunpowder Milkshake (2021)
Once women reach a certain age (40 and above) in Hollywood, they are deemed less valuable and less capable of leading a film. This antiquated belief embedded within the studio film industry has often seen young actresses cast in roles beyond their years. Meanwhile, the careers of countless older actresses decline in quality/opportunity or fade into oblivion, and it’s not because they suddenly stopped being talented. There’s an added pressure particularly on women in this youth-obsessed industry; not only is Hollywood infinitely less forgiving of their career missteps, but there are not nearly enough good roles that exist as they get older. Gunpowder Milkshake is an unfortunate example of just how often older women are cast away, relegated into window-dressing supporting roles that feel more like paper thin caricatures than human beings. With a cast that boasts absolutely incredible actresses such as Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Lena Headey, it’s a travesty that these women are given so little to do. It’s a striking echo to the conversation that Karen Gillan is front and center. Talented in her own right, but woefully miscast and lacking the screen presence to carry this neon-lit action feature. As it turns out, the supporting cast are infinitely more interesting to watch.
Directed by Navot Papushado, who also co-wrote the script with Ehud Lavski, Gunpowder Milkshake is a film that exemplifies how men fail to grasp the complexities of well-written roles for women. The story centers on Sam (Karen Gillan), a professional assassin whose high-stake mission spins out of control and unleashes a gang war. Money is stolen from The Firm, the organization Sam works for, and her boss Nathan (Paul Giamatti) puts her on the case to retrieve it. Sam crosses the wrong people and decides to go rogue when an innocent 8-year-old girl gets caught in the crossfire. This leads her back to her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) and former sidekicks Anna May (Angela Bassett), Madeleine (Carla Gugino), and Florence (Michelle Yeoh), as they all join forces against the men who took everything from them. The film is at its most enjoyable when they all get to kick some serious ass, particularly in the final act. But those moments are few and far between. The filmmakers squander the opportunity to use a great ensemble in favor of a generic, forgettable story and a severely dull protagonist.
Scarlet (Headey) has another thread in this story; she abandoned Sam at a young age and had been on the run for a long time, having kept her daughter in the dark on a secret dangerous life. That lifestyle has caught up to Sam, but far behind is the actress who plays her. One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is the casting of Gillan, who aces some strong action sequences but simply doesn’t register as a compelling character. The film centers on her point of view as she leads the way through dangerous scenarios, but the writing deflates any real tension or real stakes. While Gillan doesn’t bring much charisma herself, she’s also given very little strong material to work with. Sam is a cardboard cutout version of a character. She’s going through the motions, kicking ass when the time comes, but the lack of emotional investment in who she is ultimately hurts the film. Not that Sam needs to be an open book. But without any real way in to this character, it’s hard to find a hook to maintain interest throughout, especially considering her role as the protagonist. Once the story reveals more characters, and once Scarlet returns from a fifteen-year run, the missed opportunities of Gunpowder Milkshake start to crystallize.
The film leaves behind a lot more “if only’s” than it does admiration or interest in what’s actually unfolding on screen. One missed opportunity is not exploring the potentiality of where the energy could and should have been: Scarlet, or the trio of her former sidekicks-turned-“librarians” Anna May (Bassett), Madeleine (Gugino) and Florence (Yeoh), as the leads. Even with limited screen time and disappointing writing, these characters show far more compelling glimmers than anyone else in the film. Headey’s character is driven off in the opening scene of the film after a tense diner sequence, and takes the intrigue with her. Scarlet has ties to the most intriguing characters: the librarians. At the crossroads of the film, when Sam needs reliable sources of support, she pays a visit to the library for help. She sees a familiar face in Madeleine, who takes her into a majestic-looking hidden headquarters where Anna May and Florence step into frame. There’s a memorable scene when the trio go through Sam’s bag full of weapons while she talks in the background, but they’re far more concentrated on what’s in front of them. It's a great parallel to where the energy of this film perhaps should have gone towards: who are these librarians? Guns and various other weapons hidden in an Austen, a Brontë, a Woolf, and a Christie? A grand door with a stone lion on it that opens with the sound of a lion’s growl? Not only does this library have a stronger sense of place than the world outside of it, but it’s also where the most interesting characters live. To the film’s detriment, it’s also where they stay. Like everyone in this ensemble, Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh aren’t given much to work with. They each do their best, and have memorable moments in the film with some fun action sequences. Even with stilted dialogue and lacking material, they know exactly how to command the screen. It’s enough to be wistful for more backstory on them and annoyed about these wonderful actresses getting the shaft.
While the story and protagonist leave a lot to be desired, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the milkshake aesthetics and neon-lit action sequences. One sequence in particular makes great use of a bowling alley; another brings out an electric western-style showdown. It’s entertaining to watch these women kick ass and have fun with engaging choreography. The library battle sequence is by far one of the highlights of Gunpowder Milkshake, as it incorporates much of what works best in the film: the most interesting characters, and a decent example of establishing setting. Outside of the library, the sense of place is nowhere to be felt. Where is the diner? Where is this story unfolding? The story feels like it moves from one constructed movie set to another, as though existing in a vacuum. The lack of clarity and specificity is in line with the generic storyline, where the stakes feel low. The score kicks in every now and then as a reminder of where tension ought to be felt.
Gunpowder Milkshake ultimately feels like a storyboard of a film, sprinkled with aesthetically pleasing moments and a talented ensemble but missing the key ingredients for a truly great time. Much of the disappointment lies in a screenplay chasing the energy of bad-ass moments without devoting enough time to the characters or crafting an interesting story to follow. What remains is a mixture of missed opportunities, including an ensemble of actresses whose talents are wasted and whose time on screen is derailed by far less compelling direction. As the story follows its lackluster protagonist to the end, one can’t help but ponder the possibilities of Scarlet and the librarians changing ingredients and leading this film to a far more satisfying place.