Hitmen make for great protagonists because their jobs should be simple and clear-cut, but that’s almost never the case if they find themselves at the center of a story that audiences will find appealing. Identifying a target and figuring out a way to take them out doesn’t necessarily give an assassin the upper hand, and it’s how they respond to unexpected circumstances that typically becomes most interesting. Ending up as the subject of a kill order after a job gone wrong is an oft-used development, one that sets the stage for a fully enthralling and entertaining nonstop ride in Gunpowder Milkshake.
For Sam (Karen Gillan), being a hitman is a family business. She last saw her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) when she had to skip town after she killed the wrong person fifteen years earlier, and she still meets her handler Nathan (Paul Giamatti) at the same diner to receive her latest assignments. Her latest job leaves the son of a powerful mobster dead, a problem Sam can only begin to deal with after she compromises her work ethic to save an eight-year-old girl, Emily (Chloe Coleman), whose father she has just shot.
This is a film that runs nearly two hours but has almost no downtime, inserting a few expository scenes to explain who characters are but spending precious little time on unnecessary conversation. This may well be the most jam-packed day of Sam’s career, giving her no time to rest and converging all aspects of her life into one exhausting series of scuffles and brawls. Sam doesn’t have much time to think, but every circumstance shows just how quick she is on her feet and how she can get creative when the situation demands it.
This is the kind of movie that leans into existing conventions of its genre and isn’t afraid to use what works. The film’s title is a clever reference to the drink that Sam gets each time she goes to the diner in tribute to the last day she saw her mom before she took off following a barrage of gunfire. When Sam is told that she needs to trade in her guns, she goes to a library staffed by female hitmen (played by Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh) who present their weapons cache in physical books whose authors are specifically coded to what’s inside.
Early on, Sam has her work ethic questioned by her mother’s peers who all knew her when she was a child and now meet her again as a full-fledged adult. When she emphasizes that she is a professional, they suggest that she doesn’t kill women or children, to which she replies she’s fine with killing women, which in their minds makes her a self-declared feminist. There is absolutely nothing in this film that men are capable of that women are not aside from bloodthirsty cruelty, which is of course why Sam cannot resist the urge to protect a child she knows could easily be forgotten – or worse – in a harsh world.
There is considerable violence to be found throughout the course of this film, and while some of it is indeed gratuitous, the camera never lingers longer than it needs to on the appalling carnage. The viciousness portrayed is instead a statement on how terrible people with villainous inclinations may end up meeting miserable fates that some would argue they do deserve. This film is more worth celebrating as an action showcase, one that gives its multigenerational cast of six formidable females plenty to do.
Gillan is a natural as Sam, combining the memorable personality she exhibited in her self-directed performance in The Party’s Just Beginning with the signature wit she exuded as Nebula in her Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances. Headey delivers a considerably softer turn than her well-known Game of Thrones empress, and she and Gillan have great chemistry. Coleman, who has already at twelve years old demonstrated tremendous range across genres, is a delight, and her comic timing should not be underappreciated.
A particular pleasure in this film comes from seeing Gugino, Bassett, and Yeoh cast in parts that are entirely perfect for them. All three have all recently starred in major TV series that enable them some degree of action-adjacent material, and they’re evidently having a blast here as weapons dealers keeping up their library front. Their dialogue and banter is rewarding enough, but when they get to take part in the action, this film gets even more fun.
Like another recent battle-heavy blockbuster, F9: The Fast Saga, this film doesn’t stop to ponder what doesn’t make sense about its plot setups and instead doubles down on them. When Sam is injected with a toxin that renders her hands unusable, she simply has someone else tape weapons to her hands, and that particular bit of paralysis doesn’t prevent her from doing backflips. Stopping to process the logic would be unproductive, and this film smartly goes all out and delivers a fantastically enjoyable and entirely immersive experience.
Gunpowder Milkshake is now playing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.