With most of Hollywood’s tentpole productions mining whatever decades-old IP they can get their hands on, it’s pretty rare for a completely original property to exist at all, let alone to build out a world so enticing that you want to come back for another round the moment it’s over. Perhaps that’s why Gunpowder Milkshake feels like such a breath of fresh air. This action thriller from director Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves) has all of the intricate world-building and character backstory of a property with years and years of comic books or TV seasons in its past, and yet it’s all coming straight from the inventive minds of Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski.
The story centers on Sam (Karen Gillan), an assassin making her way in the world after being abandoned long ago by her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey), who was in the same line of work. Sam quickly finds herself on the run from a nefarious organization led by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), and worse still – she is now morally charged with protecting Emily (Chloe Coleman), a young girl whose father Sam took out of the picture. What ever will a lone wolf assassin do?
Gunpowder Milkshake pulls from plenty of influences, yet Papushado brings a visual flair entirely of his own design. This is a film that pops in a way few other genre exercises of its type are willing to do anymore, giving a welcome reprieve for those exhausted by the overly grey monotony of the much-hyped Blockbuster of the Week. The comic book stylings bring an exciting aesthetic that draws the viewer into this world immediately, and Papushado capitalizes on that by fleshing out this rich backstory between all of these characters and the trials and tribulations they’ve had together over the years.
That history comes to a head when we are introduced to Anna May, Florence, and Madeleine (Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Carla Gugino, respectively), a trio of badass women who used to work alongside Scarlet and could provide some of the answers that Sam needs to make it to another day. This sets up one of the foundational elements at the heart of Gunpowder Milkshake, as the film ultimately becomes about three generations of women uniting together to take on the obstacles that the world poses against them. The metaphor for women taking on the patriarchy (Giamatti’s crew is entirely made up of men) certainly isn’t subtle, but hey, if you’re looking for subtlety in your bubblegum Netflix action thriller, maybe you’ve come to the wrong place.
For those willing to take in the blunt as a sledgehammer deeper themes present in the film, there’s a little bit more to chew on here than just surface level enjoyment – even if it’s just a little bit. If you’re someone not looking to do any kind of thinking while getting in your nightly streaming, this is still an absolute joy ride from start to finish, kicking off with a killer opening scene and genuinely never letting up. Papushado barely takes his foot off the gas through the entire runtime, and yet he still makes space for us to care about these characters and their relationships.
Whether it’s the queer coded exchanges between Florence and Madeleine, or the surrogate mother-daughter bond formed between Sam and Emily, these are characters who you not only invest in during this introductory outing – they’re ones you end up wanting to go on another adventure with the moment the credits roll. Certainly the finale sets us up for a long future of possible sequels, spin-offs, and prequels, but thankfully this works well enough on its own as well. Papushado knows the art of creating a world that you want to see more of, and that’s by starting with a foundation that works as a stand-alone property. Gunpowder Milkshake certainly does that and then some, making for one of the most pleasant surprises of the year so far.