A bit of advice? If you’re wondering where they came up with the name Gunpowder Milkshake don’t, for example, search for the phrase in the Urban Dictionary. I didn’t, but my husband did and, judging by the look on his usually unflappable face, it was a doozy of a definition. And really, you don’t need to go chasing down deeper meanings at all when you can stick to the non-stop action stylized set design, and simple-but-gratifying-enough storyline that’s already right there. A LOT of critics complained that bigger-name stars were wasted on a movie that didn’t allow them deeper character development and wasn’t overly memorable, but I would argue, as I have before, that not every movie needs to be awash in archaic symbolism, complicated storytelling, beautiful language, and moments that lodge in your brain for life. Imagine how awfully crowded our brains would become if that were the case? Everything you’ve ever watched jockeying for space inside your noggin? Couldn’t that get to be overwhelming? Gunpowder Milkshake is nearly two hours of action that spares no fake blood, upholds the timeworn truth that men are pretty universally awful, and reminds us that it’s always good to have the librarians on your side. Plus, it made me chuckle more than once.
It’s been fifteen years since Sam’s (Karen Gillan) mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) shot her way out of a tight spot in a diner, disappearing into a dark and rainy night, leaving Sam, still just a teenager, in the care of Nathan (Paul Giamatti). Now Sam works for Nathan and The Firm, a shadowy group of men who have been “running things for a long, long time.” Okay, okay, I know I said not to look for deeper meaning, but The Firm sounds a whole lot like the patriarchy. I’m here for it. Anyway, Sam is basically a one-woman killing machine, paid to do The Firm’s bidding without question, and then go home to watch cartoons, eat cereal, and stitch up her own wounds. She doesn’t appear to have any remorse about her work, but she’s still really, super duper pissed at her mom for leaving all those years ago, which, quite frankly, is reasonable enough. Personally, I’d be pretty upset about the whole leaving me alone with a guy who turned me into a trained assassin, but Sam seems more upset about the fact that her mother didn’t take Sam under her wing, and that she had to learn the killing trade on her own. I mean, to each her own.
Anyway, some bad intel means a job goes sideways and Sam ends up killing a guy who very much should not have been killed. In order to make nice with the not-so-nice men in charge, Nathan tells her she needs to take out a guy who has stolen a lot of money from The Firm. Seems easy enough, but it turns out that the guy’s young daughter Emily (Chloe Coleman) has been kidnapped and he stole the cash to pay her ransom. While Sam doesn’t mind mowing down a literal busload of men, she can’t bring herself to abandon the little girl. Surprising no one who has ever dealt with the patriarchy, The Firm considers the kid and Sam disposable, but before she is completely cut off and put on their hit list, Nathan manages to reconnect Sam with her mother. Eventually, Sam, Scarlett, and Emily make their way—via secret passages and hidden doorways—to the refuge of a library, which is staffed by three very particular librarians, Madeline (Carla Gugino), Florence (Michelle Yeoh), and Anna May (Angela Bassett). I’m not quite clear on what the librarians do exactly, but they work in a library, keep weapons and money hidden in beautifully bound volumes, store even more badass supplies in the basement, and overall make my now grown-up Harriet the Spy loving heart go pitter pat. Back in the day, Scarlet was close enough to them that Sam called them all her aunts, but disappearing on your loved ones for fifteen years can lead to some hurt feelings, so there’s some fence mending that needs to be done before they can join hands, sing Kumbaya, and blast the butts off hoards of men with impure intentions.
Can we take a moment to talk about how delightful Chloe Coleman is as Emily? Delightful feels like the wrong word to use for a child who witnesses as much carnage as she does, but we’re talking on a relative scale here. There’s a real tendency in movies with one kid surrounded by adults to pump up the precociousness to unbearable, but that’s not the case here. Emily quietly steals scenes with her blank stares, haunted looks, and calm assertiveness. In some scenes her mere presence adds a layer of humor, like when Anna May keeps changing the word “fuck” to “fudge.” At other times it adds some gentle empathy, like when Madeline kneels down and gently places some headphones over Emily’s ears and presses play on an old cassette walkman before letting loose with a mounted machine gun. Emily sits cross legged—Janis Joplin’s raspy voice filling her ears as shell casings rain down around her—at least partially shielded from the nearby violence. (And again, I am certainly the one who said not to look for meaning, but if you were to look for meaning, you might be able to say that they were protecting her from violence perpetrated upon women by the motherfucking patriarchy for as long as they could.) One of my favorite scenes is when she and Sam are trying to escape, but Sam’s arms are immobilized so Emily sits on her lap in the car to steer and shift gears while Sam works the gas and brake pedals. Sometimes, when things are going to get gruesome, Sam instructs Emily to close her eyes tight so she won’t have to see anyone get hurt. Who knew you could manage to add a new twist and a layer of empathy to a chase scene even while people get the life squashed out of them like bugs? Innovative! Amusing! I don’t know if I can say that any of it feels realistic because I know nothing of the realism of a day where several men are decapitated and dozens more killed, but I can say that it feels more realistic. And a whole lot less annoying.
The general look of Gunpowder Milkshake feels to my extraordinarily untrained eyes like highly stylized comic book noir. The background is often filled with neon hues of orange, pink, and blue in the form of signs, a glowing ferris wheel, or even the sky itself. The people are dressed anywhere from modern—Emily wears a bright yellow puffer jacket for most of the movie—to Sam Spade—when Sam first visits the librarians she goes incognito in a trench coat and wide brimmed hat pulled over one eye. Sam carries her guns in a large bright yellow duffel bag that reads “I heart kittens.” The librarians, in their various fitted versions of tweed suits, feel like 1940-something mobster intellectuals, if such a thing existed. Many places are dark and shadowy except for the neon glow of a few pink lights or the diffuse light through a large window. A dentist’s office where people go to get stitched up off the books is startlingly white, a good contrast for the copious red blood that ends up being shed there. It’s all a good background for the rat-a-tat-tat rhythm of violence, the scarcity of words, and the overall feel of the movie as just the other-side of here.
I watched Gunpower Milkshake shortly after finishing the series Jett, which also stars Carla Gugino and is also full of action and blood. A lot of people really loved Jett, but personally, after diligently plowing through all ten episodes, I just felt like the male gaze had permanently burned areola-shaped shaped holes in my retinas (or maybe my soul), and not in a good way. For serious, my friends, it’s a show where a grown man spoke the line “you’re not like any girl I’ve ever met” to a grown woman without a shred of irony or humor. The way I bellowed like an angry elephant! But I’m getting off track. My point is that even though Gunpowder Milkshake is written and directed by men (Navot Papushado and Ehud Lavski), it’s refreshingly free of the usual male gaze tropes. These women are action stars without sexy get-ups. Without male love interests. Without a stitch of latex or a hint of cleavage. And without a single man backing them up, saving the day, or sexualizing them in any way. And look, I’m not saying women action stars can’t or shouldn’t be sexy. Please. I dare you to make Angela Bassett unsexy. It’s not possible. That’s the point. They don’t need any help beyond their own general badassery, and thankfully this movie seems to understand that. Look, did I really need to spend more than 1,000 words convincing you to watch a fun, action-packed movie that has librarians kicking ass via the weapons they cleverly hide in books, and that also may be saying fuck (and sometimes fudge) you to the patriarchy while celebrating sisterhood, loyalty, and forgiveness? Probably not, but what’s done is done.