For years movie audiences have complained that it seems every new release is a sequel, a prequel, or a remake of an existing property. This generalization, as all others, including this one, is incorrect. The problem isn’t that original films aren’t being released, it’s that original films struggle to make their money back while sequels, prequels, and remakes (including sequels to bad movies, *cough* Space Jam *cough*) are guaranteed to double their money… that’s a generalization, almost guaranteed to double their money. This problem of original content failing isn’t helped when an original property, or in the case of Gunpowder Milkshake “original” property (more on that next), is shallow, poorly developed, and clearly meant to cash-in on a recent trend. It may not be a sequel, prequel, or remake, but it damn sure wants to be those things.
The reason it’s important to use ironic quotes around “original” is that Gunpowder Milkshake is in every way a knockoff of so many stylish, violent revenge films where the basic plot is trained killer is wronged by boss so trained killer kills everyone before killing boss. That’s it. That’s the whole film. It isn’t hard to imagine director and co-writer Navot Papushado pitching the film as “What if we made John Wick but replaced all the tedious character development with women shooting people?” and for some reason Netflix decided to spend 30 million dollars on this “original” concept. Sure, 30 million dollars is nothing compared to your standard sequel, prequel, or remake, even the aforementioned Space Jam sequel costs five times that amount (seriously, 150 million dollars), but 30 million dollars is still a lot of money.
If one thing is clear about Gunpowder Milkshake‘s budget it’s that none of that money… that’s a generalization… a tiny fraction of that money went into the story. In fact, just knowing that Papushado and co-writer Ehud Lavski were actually paid for this nonsense could be enough to make any aspiring screenwriter who has failed to sell their original work reconsider their life choices while watching this movie (I know I am chief among them). It’s not that the film necessarily has a bad story, it’s that the film has almost no story built on one idea: a library, but the books have guns. One could make the argument that the books are meant to symbolize the power of knowledge, except that the books are impossible to read and serve only as cases for the guns. Thus, knowledge isn’t power. Guns are power. Further, what little story there is hinges on mistakes that the main characters… “characters”… have no agency over. Killing the bad guys before they can kill you isn’t a choice, it’s survival, the most basic function of life. Again, quotes are necessary as every “character” in Gunpowder can be described in one word: assassin, mom, girl, angry, caring, ummm…, villain, and so forth. It’s easy to understand why such talented performers as Karen Gillan, Lena Headey, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino and Paul Giamatti would take these parts – a payday for roles they can sleep through – but why Papushado would spend big bucks on A-listers and then give them nothing to work with? The only person who has to do any acting in the entire film is Chloe Coleman in role of girl. The character has a name, only a first name of course because any more than that would require effort, but for all intents and purposes her role in the story is girl, because it’s better than categorizing her as “victim.”
The lack of any depth in Gunpowder Milkshake doesn’t stop the film from trying to confer a message, in the same way that the kid watching butterflies from midfield is “trying” to play soccer. Fortunately for anyone who didn’t catch the subtle undertones of Black Widow, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, the anti-patriarchal message of Gunpowder Milkshake is so close to the film’s surface that it doesn’t even qualify as subtext. The film directly states its message at both the beginning and the end, just in case the previous two hours of every hero being a woman and every villain being a man was too abstract. The same tactic was used in last year’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulos Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which just adds to how “original” Gunpowder really is. In fact, Gunpowder is essentially the exact same film as Birds of Prey but without the character development, nuance, and emotional resonance. Sam (no last name) is Harley Quinn if all of the character’s charisma, psychosis, and history were removed. Basically, if Harley Quinn was lobotomized and then set loose on Gotham, she’d be Sam (no last name).
Gunpowder Milkshake does look good, in the most basic way. The colors are bright and the camera moves well. Yet even here we see the general lack of execution in uninspired fight choreography and cartoonish blood effects meant to emulate schlocky B-movie fare but come off as cheap, for 30 million dollars. The film would be a different experience if its endless action sequences included the least bit of peril, but Gunpowder Milkshake isn’t the type of film to allow any of its leads to die. How else would the producers and Netflix be able to stretch a three-film franchise out of a ten-minute story? As is, numbness sets in after about twenty minutes, making the film easier to nap through than watch. For all its faults, and implied rape, Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch both looked good and felt dangerous. Gunpowder applies a John Wick filter to one of the Sucker Punch fantasy sequences and tries to pass it off as female empowerment, except that Sam doesn’t make a choice in Gunpowder, she is still subject to the manipulation of the men around her. You know a film has utterly failed when Sucker Punch, in which the lead character is repeatedly abused, only to then be lobotomized, has a richer, more satisfying, and, yes, a more empowering story than Gunpowder Milkshake. Now as a forty-year-old white male I might not be the best authority on the subject, but it seems to me that adding bi-sexual colors to one scene or dressing three supporting characters in the same colors as Disney’s fairy godmothers don’t signal equality or empowerment, they are quite literally window dressing.
Sure, fans of the all-flash no substance bloody-revenge-for-the-sake-of-bloody-revenge genre – Shoot’em Up, the John Wick franchise, the Kill Bill movies, almost (to avoid generalizations) anything Tarantino has made in the last ten years – will enjoy the pretty colors and endless waves of dead bodies populating Gunpowder Milkshake (the film has no extras, every single person on-screen is either a character or a henchmen for the characters to kill), but for the rest of us it’s just another entry in an unsatisfying subgenre of “original” films. The Handmaiden is a revenge story. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a revenge story. Promising Young Woman is a revenge story. While stylish, these films stand apart because they include depth, emotion, and characters who make choices to control their own lives. They are female-led, empowerment stories where the audience invests in more than how many slow motion headshots the director can fit into a single scene. In film, as in life, if you’re going to seek revenge, make it f***ing meaningful!
While preparing for this review I was going to write that the most “original” thing about Gunpowder Milkshake is the title. Then I kept misnaming it as Lollipop Chainsaw and even that one “original” element was lost. Original films are important. New filmmakers are important. Stories of women taking control of their lives are important. Thus it’s a shame when all of these important issues are undercut by a product as bland, vacuous, dispiriting, and, yes, unoriginal as Gunpowder Milkshake. It’ll be hard in the future for an aspiring screenwriter to pitch their new female-led action movie when executives have memories of candy-colored crap lingering in their heads. As a mix of previous films, striped of all intrigue and skill, Gunpowder Milkshake is exactly as bright and empty as its title implies.