Netflix’s ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ is a stylish, violent ‘John Wick’ lookalike — for women

“Gunpowder Milkshake,” briefly set adrift by the upheaval of the pandemic, has found a new home — and likely new audience — with Netflix. A stylistic piece of violent cotton-candy fluff, the action film is part of a growing wave of standalone midbudget films that Netflix sees as potential franchise starters. Though the film itself is a bit too precious for its own good, it is exactly the type of movie Netflix hopes will pad out its feature film offerings.

Though the film itself is a bit too precious for its own good, it is exactly the type of movie Netflix hopes will pad out its feature film offerings.

Though “Gunpowder Milkshake” looks and feels like the adaptation of a comic book, it is a wholly original story. The film revolves around Sam (Karen Gillan), the now grown daughter of professional assassin Scarlet (Lena Headey), who has followed in her mother’s footsteps despite being abandoned as a teen. After a particularly brutal job goes bad, Sam finds herself in need of help, and winds up contacting her mother’s old friends. Known as the “Librarians,” this badass sisterhood of Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh and Carla Gugino live in a library where all the classics are filled with high-powered hand cannons. Though Sam tries at first to keep going it alone, her next job necessitates an alliance with the Librarians and her mother, who all come together in what can be accurately described as a female orgy of violence against an uncaring world of male gangsters.

If this sounds rather like a Quentin Tarantino setup, it should. The film obviously takes cues from the director’s biggest films, with moments that recall both 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” and 2003’s “Kill Bill.” (The intense focus on an old school rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack during major fight scenes also recalls Tarantino’s style.)

The difference, of course, is the supposedly feminist angle. But to call this film feminist is a bit of a stretch. Though the male gaze is less obvious than, say, Tarantino’s open leering, director Navot Papushado leans a bit too heavily on familiar tropes of womanhood, especially motherhood.

That being said, the film is still a wildly entertaining spectacle of nerdy ladies who are every bit as tough as the male antagonists. And “Gunpowder Milkshake’s” blend of pulp magazine cartoon violence and girl geek fantasy is, at the least, unusual. As a visual spectacle, it’s a feast, with bright, unpredictable pops of color amid the darkness (see: a duffle bag of guns marked “I Heart Kittens”).

Sadly, the film struggles at times to find its footing plot-wise, and can feel more concerned with style and quips then the heart of its characters.

Welcome to the slightly mediocre middle of the Netflix feature film queue.

Welcome to the slightly mediocre middle of the Netflix feature film queue. Movies like “The Kissing Booth” and “Murder Mystery,” which wouldn’t (and couldn’t) find success in theaters, are now easily becoming the most-watched of Netflix’s original slate. And with the streamer working to emphasize its catalog of original feature films to viewers, it’s focusing more and more on films that could maybe have been released at the local cineplex, even if they aren’t going to win any awards for substance.

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is clearly meant to be that sort of film (its producer is better known for the Oscar-nominated “The Mauritanian” and critically acclaimed hits like “Hustlers.”)

Though “Gunpowder Milkshake” never got to prove itself in theaters, it’s exactly the sort of relatively mediocre offering that people will likely gravitate toward on a casual Wednesday night. And perhaps most important, it has the potential to launch multiple gun-toting sequels, with a conclusion that leaves things wide open.

Netflix needs original franchises. The company recently slammed down a ridiculous amount of money for the rights to “Knives Out,” grabbing hold of a hit piece of stylish fluff that could easily be spun off into two (or three) more films. “Gunpowder Milkshake” fits the same mold — there’s a reason it’s being compared to “John Wick,” another delightfully silly assassin’s story that’s somehow still going after four movies. Ultimately “Gunpowder Milkshake” never forgets it’s here to entertain nerdy, fantasy-loving women. And Netflix is betting that’s a sweet formula, indeed.

Ani Bundel

Ani Bundel is a cultural critic who has been writing regularly since 2010. Her work can also be found at Elite Daily and WETA’s Telly Visions, where she also co-hosts “Telly Visions: The Podcast.”

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