For years, thousands of individuals in the film industry bought into the idea that female-led action movies would “never make money,” as they were supposedly “impossible to market to men,” which in turn rendered them “commercially risky.” Therefore, though there were a few exceptions (Sigourney Weaver in Alien and Aliens, Linda Hamilton in The Terminator and especially in Terminator 2, etc.), Hollywood shied away from giving audiences any notable female action stars for decades, instead focusing on making Mission: Impossible 45 or introducing the twentieth iteration of James Bond.
Thankfully, at the start of the century, it was clear that a change was coming. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology brought Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo to the big screen, instantly establishing her as an icon of the action genre. Charlize Theron broke barriers in a number of stunt-driven spectacles, such as 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, 2017’s Atomic Blonde, and 2020’s The Old Guard. And, finally, the superhero genre started diversifying its output as well, with long-awaited origin stories for the likes of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and the recent release of Black Widow, which gave fans their fervently anticipated solo film for the Scarlett Johansson’s super spy.
Unfortunately, despite all of this promising progress, there is still so much work to be done, and there’s a long way to go before full gender equality is achieved in action genre. However, with the release of Navot Papushado’s gloriously manic and gorgeously mounted Gunpowder Milkshake, we’re certainly one step closer, as this female-centric John Wick-esque epic about an underground crime syndicate and the killer women who work for this organization is not only notable for its skillfully staged setpieces and captivating fight choreography but also for its expansive and emotionally involving mythology, immediately immersing audiences in a cinematic setting they’re sure to want to revisit time and time again.
The story starts with Sam (Karen Gillan), an honorable hit woman whose mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) abandoned her when she was only 12 years old, leaving her to be raised by the assassin agency she worked with, known as The Firm. Over fifteen years, Sam was molded into an equally talented executioner, cleaning up The Firm’s messes and receiving protection as a result. Sadly, when a job goes south, Sam has to choose between serving The Firm or saving an innocent 8-year-old girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) – and when she opts for the latter, she must seek out her mother and her lethal associates, known as “The Librarians” (Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, and Michelle Yeoh) to wage a war against the murderous men on her tail.
Papushado – who directs and co-writes, alongside Ehud Lavski – must be commended here for taking a concept that could’ve easily been seen as a John Wick rip-off and imbuing it with imagination and innovation, using this formula as a foundation but evolving it in fascinating fashion. This is no mere gender-swapped remake of that famed Keanu Reeves franchise; Gunpowder Milkshake is more than able to stand on its own as an original creation, with Papushado creating compelling new characters and lettering lively lore that allow the film to rise above these comparisons and emerge as an action-classic-in-the-making in its own right. The specificity with which he and Lavski characterize The Firm, its workers, and their relationships is nothing short of stunning, and this fierce commitment to fleshing out the film’s world only helps it feel more lived-in and lush, distancing it from more anonymous actioners.
In the director’s chair, Papushado is similarly sharp, filming the frenetic fight sequences with fire and fervor amongst an array of arresting atmospheres. Assisted by Michael Seresin’s consuming neon-tinged cinematography and editor Nicolas De Toth’s crisp cutting, each set piece is as stimulating and suspenseful as the last, culminating in an appropriately chaotic climax that ups the ante considerably and serves up as much spectacle as your average summer blockbuster. For those who still think female-led action films can’t hold a candle to movies anchored by men, Gunpowder Milkshake calmly asks you to hold its beer.
From top to bottom, the ensemble is also largely excellent, and it’s a crucial component of Gunpowder Milkshake’s success overall. Karen Gillan makes for a stoic and strong-willed lead as the steadfast Sam, but the tale truly comes to life when the supporting cast is folded into the story’s central struggle too, as Headey, Bassett, Gugino, and Yeoh enliven the picture enormously with their engrossing charisma and chemistry. Headey unsurprisingly sells the familial drama like a pro, but she’s no slouch on the action front either, bringing a feverish ferocity to battle that’s simply stupefying – and each of “The Librarians” matches this might masterfully. Bassett is the standout, exhibiting a raw rage that proves to be positively riveting, while Gugino gets her fair share of shining moments as well, housing a hankering for bloodshed beneath her demure demeanor. By comparison, Yeoh is slightly shortchanged, but she owns the film’s final fight and leaves quite a lasting impression.
Gunpowder Milkshake certainly wears its influences on its sleeve – drawing from the structures and set-ups of both the John Wick and Kingsman film series, among others – but by the time it ends, it’s become its own brilliant work of adrenaline-fueled beauty, and it’s impossible to not instantaneously want more of this wicked world and the women who inhabit it. With a consummately assembled cast, a snappy script, and dynamic direction, Gunpowder Milkshake is yet another excellent example that the ladies can do action just as well as the guys – if not better.
Gunpowder Milkshake will be available to stream on Netflix this Wednesday, July 14.
Photos: Reiner Bajo, Studiocanal/Netflix