Karen Gillan fights in a hospital in "Gunpowder Milkshake".

“Gunpowder Milkshake”, Late Stage Capitalism, & Spaghetti Western Pop Art

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is a Spaghetti Western that takes place in abandoned commercial spaces where smart light panels blaze inconstant, shifting colors into the night. Only robber barons and their armies dare to tread there. They shuttle between the defunct, collapsed memories of malls and the nostalgic retro-pastiche shops that act like anchors when everything real just…stopped one day.

Karen Gillan plays an assassin named Sam, after a job goes belly-up and her employers turn on her. It leaves her protecting a child through ever-more ridiculous action sequences. More importantly, Gillan leads us through a funhouse mirror reflection of action movies, built more from John Woo than “John Wick”, constructed on the bones and intentions of Sergio Leone Westerns, and strung with a deeply macabre and explicitly violent humor.

“Gunpowder Milkshake” is messy and imperfect, but it’s also unique and satisfying in a way so many other action movies aren’t. As in many Spaghetti Westerns, Sam has a chance at personal redemption by doing the right thing for once. That means turning on those she once worked for, with only her estranged gang of outlaws to offer support.

Pluck Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, or Eli Wallach out of yesterday’s Westerns and deposit them in “Gunpowder Milkshake”, and they’d feel right at home in the structure of it. The style, however, is anything but familiar.

There aren’t horses or sweeping desert landscapes here. There are bowling alleys, parking garages, a library acting much like the Western’s courthouse, a shake shop as the meet-up instead of a casino or brothel. The strange, sweeping music makes the Spaghetti Western connection more obvious, but “Gunpowder Milkshake” isn’t a straight analogue. It adheres to the framework of the Spaghetti Western, the meaning of it. The aesthetic is something altogether different, a suffusion of American realism and pop art, as if Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” was done by Roy Lichtenstein.

Where the Western was desolate landscape that reflected the barren souls of its characters and gave them a stage that stressed iconography, “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a retro diner, a run-down mall, an unbelievably sanitary hospital, all of them overwhelmed with calming pastels, or too-bright white, or neon-emulating light panels, anything to suggest a life and bustle that isn’t really there. It’s no less a limbo. “Gunpowder Milkshake” is a modern desolation, as empty as those deserts save for its murderers and the people who pay them. It doesn’t paint its own world so much as it interprets and abstracts our own.

It’s also funny, in particular during a series of escalating action scenes where Sam’s lost any motor function in her arms. Gillan plays her hero gruff and generally monotone, just like a Western hero, but it’s in these scenes that her comic chops shine through. Her sheer skill within action comedy can undermine that gruff approach, but she has a keen ability for Bruce Willicisms – eye rolls, exasperation, and that personally offended, put-upon reaction within shootouts and fist fights. This doesn’t really agree with the emotionless, lone rider approach she takes in some scenes, but it’s a trade well worth making.

I love everything that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is trying to do. I don’t know that it gets there with every note, but it succeeds on most counts. Even when it doesn’t, there’s still a phenomenal cast to watch beat fools up. Gillan is joined by Angela Bassett, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, and Michelle Yeoh. I know, bury the lede, right? In particular, Michelle Yeoh reminds us that she may be the best action star in cinematic history.

There’s an anti-patriarchal message early and late, but it disappears through the film’s middle. It’s a thematic strength that “Gunpowder Milkshake” sometimes forgets to carry through in the narrative. This is made up in large part by the cast of women action heroes, who have been othered as both actors in their genre and the characters we see here. They’re much better suited than men to lead us through such a collapsing, late stage capitalist landscape. They inhabit it in a way the men they piss off never will. A cast of women can inhabit this abstraction of othering and economic decay because our culture asks them to inhabit versions of the same in our world. For a cast of Wahlbergs and Pratts, it would be nothing more than a diorama instead of a stage.

I’ll agree completely with many criticisms of the movie. You probably won’t like it if you go in expecting a straight-up action movie. This isn’t “John Wick” with women, and it’s not trying to be. It is a deeply weird, macabre Spaghetti Western that is also constantly excited and invested in its next ridiculous idea. It takes place in an abstracted, eroded commercial world – one that feels like elements of our own boiled down to the desolate iconography of late stage capitalism. If you can buy into and enjoy it at that level, it’s often a beast of a film.

The closest comparisons I have aren’t even in similar genres. They’re films that are both rooted in and playfully invert their own genres – yet if I say it made me think of “Dark City” or “Delicatessen” or “Six-String Samurai” in that way, I don’t want you to think it’s anything like those films. You can say two people approach their jobs the same way while understanding they do completely different jobs. That’s what I mean, and I think it highlights that there’s not a real comparison for “Gunpowder Milkshake” out there. Before it’s anything else, it is unique.

I certainly think there are places that could’ve been improved. The beginning is overlong, and uses a narrated framework that isn’t needed or maintained. There’s an overuse of slow-motion when nothing is happening early on, but this is solved by a constant deluge of events that make it useful later. While I think the sight gags and visual comedy of “Gunpowder Milkshake” are phenomenal, its comedic dialogue is hit and miss.

Are any of these enough to topple the ludicrous amount of fun that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is as a whole? Not at all. Don’t get me wrong – reviews for this from both critics and audiences are all over the place. This is definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of film.

If you want to see a traditional action movie with a complex plot, this is likely too stylized, impractical, and episodic. It lacks interest in the connective tissue, fine detail, and storytelling mechanics of a latter-day “Mission: Impossible”. It also wants to abstract and get to the cinema of it all where more gothic action films ranging from “The Crow” to “John Wick” to “Justice League” would prefer to use their foundation of atmosphere for philosophical expression.

Neither is it a good corollary to the MCU, whose films and series are plenty witty and colorful, but before this year often misplaced their viciousness and were too restrained for the meta-pastiche, art-before-narrative attitude of “Gunpowder Milkshake”.

This is something told through good, creative action scenes, and uses these to pursue becoming a funhouse contemporary art installation. It’s engineered to be both entertaining and eerily uncomfortable around the edges. It has a fairly simple plot to complement a world that’s meant to be interpreted instead of told outright. If that appeals to you, then you may find one of your favorite films.

That’s why I make the “Dark City”, “Delicatessen”, and “Six-String Samurai” comparisons – not because any of these films are much like each other, but because the kind of art they become utilizes popular genre conventions to deliver a film that’s more expressive than particular, landscapes and realities more suggested than defined, a world that is meant to leave you turning it over in terms of how you felt toward it rather than how you understood it. The place where you understand these worlds isn’t on the screen. You’re not connecting to what’s already formed and just needs to be grasped. You understand them by what they evoke in you. These are films that can establish a home in your imagination.

Is “Gunpowder Milkshake” on the level of those films? It’s close enough – and this type of film evoked on this scale is rare enough – that I love it. I’d call “Gunpowder Milkshake” a good film. A great one? That would require it to behave itself more. The challenging thing about contemporary art is that it defies the idea that it should be judged as good or bad; you judge it on whether it makes you feel something in a way nothing else does. “Gunpowder Milkshake” does this, and a film like that is far rarer than a great one. When something like that plants roots in your imagination, that unique emotion or sensation that only it gives you is something that you now get to carry with you. Do I think “Gunpowder Milkshake” is great? Who cares when it’s something even better?

You can watch “Gunpowder Milkshake” on Netflix.

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