What Not to Do When Making a Women-Led Action Film: ‘Gunpowder Milkshake’ as Cautionary Tale

In Netflix’s Gunpowder Milkshake, the talents of the film’s six strong women actors are shamefully squandered and exploited in the name of making a film that cares more about design and appearing “edgy” than story or character.

Gunpowder Milkshake debuted on Netflix on July 14, 2021. (Netflix)

There’s a cynical adage I remember being popular when I was a teen: “Perhaps your only purpose in life is to serve as a warning to others.” And now, 20 years later, I’ve found a film that perfectly encapsulates that bumper sticker wisdom. The newly released Netflix action comedy, Gunpowder Milkshake (directed by Navot Papushado), is a cautionary tale about what happens when you’re determined to make a women-led shoot-‘em-up, but have given very little thought to what you’re actually going to do with those women in terms of story structure, characterization or dialogue.  

It’s also a tale about what must be a paucity of exciting roles for women actors who, by Hollywood standards, are considered “older,” given the apparent willingness of the four incredible aged-40+ women who agreed to be part of this project in supporting, but still significant, roles: Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey and Michelle Yeoh. And the lead actor, Karen Gillan, is no slouch either; she plays a recurring character in the Marvel films (Nebula) and a central character in the Jumanji reboot and its sequel.

Certainly, this impressive ensemble answers the question why Netflix felt it needed to include this film as part of its lineup. But even their presence isn’t enough to come close to saving what is, both on the surface and down to its component parts, a deeply flawed and misguided film.

Set in an ill-defined, retro counter-reality where a crime syndicate, The Firm, runs an unnamed city teeming with thugs (their word) and assassins, Gunpowder Milkshake has aspirations edging towards the campy, stylized vibes of Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003 and 2004) or Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)—without any of the finesse or internal logic of those titles. In the world of the film, vibrant colors pop from the screen, bad guys are murdered with impunity, blood spatters in grotesque and cartoonish ways, and over-acting seems to be the norm to the extent that it can only have been a deliberate choice on the part of the director.  

The plot, such that it is, involves the maternal abandonment of a teenaged girl who then follows in her absent mother’s footsteps and grows up to be an assassin. Headey and Gillan play this mother-daughter duo, Scarlet and Sam. As an adult, Sam accidentally kills an important man and gets on the wrong side of the Firm when she refuses to execute a young girl, Emily (played by Chloe Coleman, who does a remarkable job in this role—one of the few upsides of the film).

On the run with Emily, Sam is forced to resort to the help of a group of her mother’s old comrades: a trio of warrior librarians (yes, warrior librarians) played by Bassett, Gugino and Yeoh. Eventually reunited with her mother and aided by the older assassins, Sam wages battle against the dozens of men sent by the Firm to kill her and Emily in a series of dizzying and fantastically unconvincing chase and action sequences.

One positive thing I can say about Gunpowder Milkshake is that the production design is gorgeous. The sets are complex and vivid, and the whole film looks like a series of paintings shot in an inverse neo-noir style, with neons and bright hues in place of black and whites. The library set, where books are just shells hiding weapons and ammunition, gold bars and fake passports, is fanciful and intricate. This, at least, makes it a fun backdrop for the 20-minute fight scene that dominates the latter half of the film and somehow manages to be banal despite its high body count.

This candy-coated movie seems to be trying so hard to accomplish something, but it’s never quite clear what. Instead, it succeeds only at offering a long string of increasingly ridiculous scenarios—at one point a bad guy is killed when a giant model of a tooth crushes him—and uninspired dialogue—a character actually utters the phrase, “Well duh,” for no apparent reason.

Sam seems modeled after Villanelle in Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018-present)—an accomplished assassin who’s mostly ruthless but has an unusual sense of personal ethics—and is even styled to look a bit like her. But, unlike Killing Eve, Gunpowder Milkshake’s contribution to the genre of women-led action media lacks even the slightest degree of nuance or clarity.

Toward the end of the film, one of the villains launches into a speech about how he “always considered [himself] a feminist,” but after fathering a series of daughters, he realized he just didn’t understand girls. That’s why his slain only son was so precious to him (because he wasn’t a girl? because only men can understand each other?) and why he needed to seek revenge against Sam at all costs. This convoluted monologue makes about as much sense as the film as a whole—and pretty much sums up its feminism: nonexistent and mystifying.

Gunpowder Milkshake effectively illustrates why women’s representation only works on the model of quality over quantity. The talents of the film’s six strong women actors (including the young girl) are shamefully squandered and, I’d argue, exploited in the name of making a film that cares more about design and appearing “edgy” than story or character. And, despite the number of women actors, the men sent to kill their characters still outnumber the women five-to-one. Certainly, there’s a deliberate message here about the overwhelming onslaught of the patriarchy under which Sam and her companions struggle, but it doesn’t land in the way I think the filmmakers hoped it would.

I imagine director Papushado and his co-writer Ehud Lavski thought Gunpowder Milkshake would be a quirky, progressive (“look how many great women we were able to cast!”) action film that would make a big splash. But surface artifice—the beautiful sets, the occasionally compelling camerawork, and the optics of a well-known cast (who deserve better)—can’t fix a lackluster premise or terrible writing. Thankfully, I think most viewers are more discerning. Gunpowder Milkshake won’t be more than a ripple, a warning to others.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an assistant professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and a contributing editor for Ms.'s Scholar Writing Program.