Navot Papushado's Gunpowder Milkshake is a night and day creation compared to his previous film, Big Bad Wolves. The Israeli filmmaker earned high praise for the violent, pressure cooker thriller, with Quentin Tarantino even calling it the best film of 2013.
Tarantino's presence can be felt in Gunpowder Milkshake, also. It is not always a good thing. Where dark levity balances the brutality in Big Bad Wolves, the colorful bullet ballet in the Netflix original spoils its dinner with sweets at every turn.
The film follows Sam, played by Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy actress Karen Gillan, an assassin in a world that wants to be part of the John Wick universe and falls short. That goal is not a bad idea given the success of the Keanu Reeves franchise, but the execution isn't there. The neurons are firing, and parts of the film are exciting homage to action and crime films over the past 20 years but never gel into a cohesive movie.
Sam's mother, Scarlet (Game of Thrones star Lena Headey), abandons her in a diner at 12 years old following a failed assassination and shootout. This leaves the door open for Sam to become an assassin in her own right, working for her mother's employer, The Firm, with HR rep Nathan (Paul Giamatti) acting as a handler. Both are also connected to a sisterhood of assassins posing as librarians peddling books filled with weapons, money and more. Co-stars Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh, and Angela Bassett shine in the roles but never really obtain the meat to chew on screen. These bits are introduced early in the film but never fleshed out as we move into a plot that has seen better execution in other movies.
Gunpowder Milkshake is still a fun ride, though, and offers plenty to love if you're a fan of these types of films. A bowling alley fight scene borrows from Kill Bill (which itself borrowed from Samurai Fiction), Gillan dons a jacket that will have you flashing back to Ryan Gosling in Drive and we even get a slight nod to Oldboy in the final fight that gives Yeoh, Bassett and Gugino a sliver of spotlight.
It would be easy say Gunpowder Milkshake puts style over substance, but that isn't fair to Papushado. There is a clear effort to create something quirky, cool and action-packed. Neon lighting drenches the film, the fight choreography offers several genuinely impressive moments and the characters are easy to like. Chloe Coleman's Emily stands out as the 8-year-old near the plot's center that never weighs it down. However, she also stands as a significant symptom of the film's failure in execution.
Exploring the world of Gunpowder Milkshake would have been great. The Berlin backdrop is perfect, though most of the film is locked inside a library, apartment, office and a very 1950s diner that seems to exist in David Lynch's brain. And the characters and rules of this world offer an opportunity for depth that isn't found across the running time. Instead, it is stuffed with plot points, actions and characters that never earn the audience's interest.
Still, if you're looking for action and a fun weekend at home with Netflix, you can't really go wrong. It tickles your imagination for what could've been, offers some wonderful visuals and will constantly remind you of other movies that came before. But ultimately, Gunpowder Milkshake falls short of its contemporaries and director Papushado's prior work. It's not John Wick, but it'll do until the next film gets here.