Gunpowder Milkshake (2021, Navot Papushado)

Gunpowder Milkshake is a moody, neon, sometimes minimalist mix of neo-noir and spaghetti Western. Director Papushado approaches the film’s budgetary constraints with creativity and ingenuity, focusing tightly on lead Karen Gillan and her dangerous presence. The film bookends with noir narration from Gillan, which creates a dreamscape for the runtime. A highly stylized dreamscape, full of lengthy, determined action sequences and occasionally pat but effective enough character moments.

Gillan’s an assassin who works for Paul Giamatti, who’s also been her guardian for the last fifteen years since mom Lena Headey walked out on her. We get the walk-out in a first act flashback–Gunpowder has an actual first act, which is somewhat unnecessary given the eventual plot but also a nice touch. Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski do the work. They give Gillan the time for character development, leveraging her inability to essay affect as a cold-blooded killer-type thing.

All of Gunpowder takes place over a day or so, starting with the narrated prologue with Gillan on a hit gone wrong. Then we get the flashback to Headey, who–given the determined world-building effort– could just be a cameo at this point, then Giamatti and the next big job. The main plot starts when Gillan’s got to make up for the screwup and take out an accountant, Samuel Anderson, who up and took a bunch of money from Giamatti’s WASP gang, “The Firm.”

Only it turns out Anderson’s got a kidnapped daughter (Chloe Coleman), and how can Gillan not help him rescue her; the stolen money’s just to get her back. And it seems like just as long as Gillan can recover the money, everything’s going to be okay with Giamatti… except it turns out she killed rival gangster Ralph Ineson’s favorite son in the opening. Lots of details coming real fast, adding up as the film progresses; Papushado and Lavski’s pacing keeps Gillan running in front of a plot boulder, which gains more and more momentum throughout. Especially once things start going wrong and it turns out being a great assassin doesn’t mean you have the best planning skills. Because Gunpowder’s actually all about working together.

First, Gillan has to work with Coleman to escape multiple sets of bad guys. Gillan improves her collaborating approach between escapes, the plot forcing character development, even if Gillan’s stone-faced to it. Sure, it’s about ornate, intricate ultra-violence and an eight-year-old, but Papushado does keep Coleman away from the action. Just not the preparation for it. And they skip over the resulting corpses entirely. Papushado’s first couple action sequences are nothing compared to the third, which raises the bar for the rest of them. Gunpowder’s action scenes—at their best, and there are at least two bests—are all about the characters’ experiences in them, like little gory, tragic poems. They’re dreadful more than exhilarating; they captivate and horrify.

But since Coleman’s a kid and never turns into a junior assassin (got to save something for the sequel, though it might work better as a trilogy), Gillan’s going to need some friends. Because it’s all about finding your family. And we learn Gillan and Headey had a family—Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh—and Headey screwed it all up and then stuck Gillan with Giamatti instead of the three ladies. They run a library of weapons. It’s a literal library, with the weapons in books with appropriately related titles. It’s a little too intentional and nonsensical but stylish and allows for an age-inappropriate Narnia reference.

Gunpowder’s never insincere. It’s sometimes less earnest than it could be, but it’s never craven. Papushado and his crew put in too much work for it to be craven. So it gets a lot of leeway. Especially when seemingly disappointing bad guy lieutenant Adam Nagaitis turns out to be good, actually. Not like a good guy but a good actor. Gunpowder rewards; trust in it, and it does pay off. Sometimes incredibly unpleasantly. It’s reservedly gory but often very tough.

Acting-wise… Headey, Coleman, and Gugino are the standouts. Bassett’s awesome, but it’s the toughest badass part, so there’s not much she actually gets to do. Yeoh’s good. Giamatti’s good. In the lead, Gillan’s effective. It’s a good part for her as it doesn’t require expressiveness; Gillan’s timing starts decent, improves throughout, following the character arc trajectory. It works out. Mainly because the costars are good and Papushado knows how to direct her.

Gunpowder Milkshake’s got its problems—there’s a lot of story and limited locations, so it occasionally meanders—but it’s an excellent, thoughtful action picture. Michael Seresin’s photography, Nicolas De Toth’s editing, David Scheunemann’s production design, Louise Frogley’s costumes, and Haim Frank Ilfman’s music–all outstanding.

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