Whimsical threatening title aside, Gunpowder Milkshake is one hell of a violent film.
That is not necessarily a bad thing since much of the murderous mayhem takes place in almost operatically balletic fashion, cartoonishly lit by primary colours that instill a trippily colourful film noir aesthetic to proceedings.
But the violence is very much front and centre, visually at least, and inescapably so, the result of occupying a world where assassins routinely doing the bidding of a mysterious group known as The Firm, black suited old white men whose reason for being is shadowy but who are more akin to members of the criminal underworld than any sort of avenging justice type set-up.
Sam (Karen Gillen; played as a 12-year-old by Freya Allen) is certainly not on any sort of lofty mission.
A second-generation assassin for The Firm – she has followed in the footsteps of her mother Scarlet (Lena Headey) who disappeared some 15 years earlier following a hit gone wrong, leave her daughter alone in the retro diner which is like a second home to Sam thanks to head waitress Rose (Joanna Bobin) – who grew up in the second half of her life as the ward of The Firm’s head of HR, Nathan (Paul Giamatti), Sam spends her days and nights killing as ordered before retiring to her apartment like any other worker.
She’s clearly jaded and exhausted by a life that isn’t so much a choice as the only option left to her after her mother abandoned her, and possessed of a great deal more empathy, compassion and integrity than you might initially suspect.
Recuperating after a job gone south, the result of poor intel which massively underestimated the number of opponents she might face, a mistake that sees her kill the only son of Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson), the head of a rival criminal organisation, Sam is ordered by Nathan to recover some moneys stolen from The Firm by an accountant in the legitimate arm of their business.
With the exhaustion not just of the day itself but a lifetime of compromises choices weighing heavily on her, Sam goes to do what she’s assured is a simple collection of purloined funds and nothing more.
But this Gunpowder Milikshake and is thing is for sure, nothing is ever simple.
Not mother-daughter relationships, not longstanding but estranged friendships, employment and certainly not scooping up stolen money which comes attached to the kidnapping of an 8 3/4 girl named Emily (Chloe Coleman) whom Sam, keenly aware of the loss of her own mother, decides she has to protect at all costs.
Nathan, naturally, does not agree, and soon Sam finds herself on the run from McAlester’s multitudinous, bloodthirsty goons and The Firm’s own ruthlessly efficient clean-up crew, with only her suddenly reappearing mum, who pops up in the nick of time, and their old found family, a sisterhood of assassins – Anna May (Angela Bassett), Florence (Michelle Yeoh) and Madeleine (Carla Gugino) – who operate a sizeable weapons armoury disguised as the library of any booklover’s dreams.
While the forces arrayed against Sam, who is determined to keep an immensely resourceful and plucky Emily from harm at any cost, seem endlessly legion, those on her side are fearsomely talented, a feminist cabal of brilliantly-talented women who are every bit a match for the unthinking male brutes who come against them.
While much of the film’s resulting violence does have a carefully-choreographed, somewhat cartoonish air to it, and for all its artfulness, it does go on and on and wear a little bit at times, the length of the bloody sequences ameliorated considerably by a killer soundtrack and athletically playful cinematography, there is a darkly bloody intensity to it and it is by no means consequences free for those on the “good” side of the narrative equation.
In fact, of the most wrenching scenes in the film comes from the death of someone who you assume, because of the devilishly irreverent nature of proceedings, will well and truly live to see another day; that she doesn’t underscore that for all the stylised violence on display, death is a real and troubling companion throughout Gunpowder Milkshake.
What elevates Gunpowder Milkshake well beyond and above being just another Tarantino-esque wannabe movie are the deeply emotional connections that run throughout the entire narrative and infuse many of the scenes with an affecting emotionality.
The chief relationship in this regard is that between Sam and Emily, who form an unexpected mother-daughter, despite a major complication that lurks like a nightmarish elephant in the room of their suddenly tight bond, and who jointly form the emotional centre of this film.
Everything Sam does is to safeguard Emily in a way she feels her own mother never did for her, and it infuses every last scene with a sense of bigger, far more important stakes than simple repelling a murderous rampage by criminal thugs.
It’s heartwarming, movingly real and a key ingredient in giving Gunpowder Milkshake an emotional centre it might not otherwise possess.
Or at least, not possess as obviously as it does.
For running alongside Sam and Emily’s closeness is the renewed relationship between Sam and Scarlet who have to sort out 15 years of mistrust and anger (Sam) and starkly painful regret (Scarlet) while in the midst of heady, boisterously murderous battle, all while Scarlet makes amends to Anna May who resents her close friend’s unheralded departure, a betrayal which cuts deep and isn’t easily forgiven, at least not at first.
It is these close bonds, once sundered, now repaired and fast that give an emotional heft and resonance to Gunpowder Milkshake that can’t help but affect you and which makes you invested in the endless action sequences in a way you would otherwise not be.
While Gunpowder Milkshake is not a perfect film, it has a great deal to recommend it, from killer songs to imaginative and extravagantly imaginative cinematography, to a fast-moving but nevertheless thoughtful narrative that only occasionally gets bogged down by over-long though cleverly executed action sequences and characters who are well-rounded and who come to matter, both to each other and to the audience, lending the film a touching emotional substance that stays with you long after the long bullet has been fired.