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► Gunpowder Milkshake is in UK cinemas from 17 September.
Israeli filmmaker Navot Papushado’s last film, 2013’s Big Bad Wolves (which he wrote and directed alongside Aharon Keshales) was the story of a father seeking brutal justice for the murder of his daughter. His solo follow-up also deals in violent vengeance and innocence lost, but moves from the basements of Israel to the futuristic spires of an unnamed American city. It also exchanges cultural and narrative nuance for by-the-numbers bombast, though the jawdropping action sequences are diverting.
Karen Gillan builds on her action credentials as Sam, a ruthless assassin who works for a shadowy organisation known only as The Firm. She is fuelled by resentment towards her mother (Lena Headey), who left her 15 years previously following a job gone wrong, consigning her to the care of Firm company man Nathan (Paul Giamatti). When an unfortunate series of events leads to Sam inadvertently killing the son of the head of a rival firm and, in the process, becoming reluctant guardian to eight-year-old orphan Emily (My Spy’s Chloe Coleman, more than holding her own), she is disavowed by The Firm and forced to go rogue.
There’s nothing groundbreaking in the screenplay by Papushado and Ehud Lavski, and while the predominantly female cast is still unusual for this genre, the feminism is blunt-edged; the killers are bad-ass women, their victims hapless men who can’t seem to land so much as a punch. There’s no real exploration of mother-daughter relationships beyond the abandonment that motivates Sam, and that she herself is put into a maternal role – albeit a non-traditional one – is something of a cop-out.
Still, it remains a thrill to see the women in action – Gillan and Headey are joined by Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett as a highly skilled gang of ‘librarians’, who hide weapons inside books in their opulent library. (The titles of the books, like some of the soundtrack choices, are rather on the nose; Little Women, Of Mice and Men, etc). Fight sequences are inventive and expertly choreographed; a particular highlight sees Sam take on a trio of mercenaries with her arms paralysed and a knife and a gun taped to her hands.
Of course, it all stretches the boundaries of belief – not to mention, at times, the laws of physics – but to view Gunpowder Milkshake with incredulity would be to miss the point. This is, essentially, a hyper-comicbook world, production designer David Scheunemann pulling in influences from 50s pulp fiction, 80s neon excess and films from Sin City to The Matrix – and, of course, myriad rote actioners in which male protagonists pull off unbelievable stunts to win the day. This should be viewed in the same terms; as fun, forgettable fare.