Here’s the kind of movie that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is. It’s a rogue-assassin-hunting-down-the-assassins-who-are-hunting-her thriller, starring a charismatically affectless Karen Gillan as Sam, the rogue in question (though, in fact, she has done nothing wrong). At one point she finds herself in a car with an 8-year-old girl, Emily (Chloe Coleman), who she has just rescued from a kidnapping. She’s teaching the girl how to maneuver around an underground parking garage, propping her up in the driver’s seat and letting her take the wheel, when they’re confronted by several vehicles full of hooligans brandishing automatic weapons.
What follows is a cat-and-mouse car chase. But does Sam take control and put Emily in the passenger seat? Of course not. The girl, with one minute of driving lessons behind her, keeps on driving, while Sam issues instructions (“Don’t worry about the bullets! Reverse…NOW! Hard left! Put it in drive! That’s it! Hard left — Go go go!!“). The girl winds up plowing into an enemy car and pushing it forward as if she were Dom Toretto on a particularly surly day. The total unreality of it is supposed to carry a certain fanciful graphic-novel-style nutty cool factor. The implausibility is the fun (at least, in theory). Yet the fact that “Gunpowder Milkshake” is knowingly over-the-top and preposterous doesn’t meant that it’s not over-the-top and preposterous. It’s the sort of movie that inspires that ultimate discerning critical comment: It’s a movie you’ll like if you like this sort of thing.
Gillan’s Sam is an assassin so violently badass and invincible that she makes Uma Thurman in the “Kill Bill” films look like Eleanor Roosevelt. Gillan, as Sam, runs up walls and flips off ceilings, executes martial-arts moves with a rigid-limbed ferocity that would smash Black Widow’s windpipe, and tosses guns and knives like a chef at Benihana. At one point a creepy doctor shoots her up with serum that paralyzes her arms, and after having weapons taped to her hands, she still manages to defeat her enemies, twirling like a rag doll as she fires and sticks blades.
The “Kill Bill” reference isn’t an idle one. “Gunpowder Milkshake,” as directed and co-written by the Israeli filmmaker Navot Papushado (“Big Bad Wolves”), unfolds in a candy-colored action dreamscape that feels like the Netflix version of a Tarantino theme park. The opening scene is set in a neon-drenched diner, complete with ritually ordered milkshake, and the movie then flashes back to the same diner 15 years earlier, when Sam, then a girl, last saw her mother, Scarlet, played by the gravely imperious Lena Headey. Mom was an assassin who worked for the Firm, an outfit so sinister and powerful that it remains an almost total abstraction. In an act of vengeance, she killed the wrong person and had to disappear. Sam, forced to fend for herself, essentially took her mother’s place. She now works for the Firm, and she too has killed the wrong person — but all she did was to carry out an assignment given to her by Nathan (Paul Giamatti), the Firm’s officious executive. He meets her in the diner, but what she doesn’t know is that Nathan is dispatching a team of killers to get rid of her. “The Russians” are involved, and so is a Mr. Big (Ralph Ineson) who lost his son.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” isn’t big on details, but the way Navot Papushado works, every set is presented as if it were the backdrop in a music video, and the shot framing is so meticulous, so centered, that there isn’t a whisper of spontaneity to it. The movie is a bluntly stylized comic-book myth of kick-ass matriarchal empowerment. Sam, who spends most of the film wearing an orange satin bowling jacket (more QT kitsch), likes to work as a lone agent, but she’s part of a veteran sisterhood who have their Batcave-like headquarters in an antique-looking library.
The place symbolizes the roles to which women were once consigned — but now, each ornate volume (Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf) is a fake book that contains a compartment that houses a weapon. The Librarians who preside over the place are played by Carla Gugino (fierce), Michelle Yeoh (fiercer), and Angela Bassett (fiercest — in fact, Bassett is so fierce that she enacts this role as if she were playing the sister of Marsellus Wallace). In a battle at the library, the killers mostly have guns. The Librarians have hammers, chains, knives, gas grenades, and an ax (Michelle Yeoh wields that chain like a Western lasso champion), and Papushado makes one spectacular music choice, choreographing a sequence of extraordinary mayhem to Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.”
He also stages a death-trip showdown at the diner in super-slow motion, so that we can take the precise tenor of each woman’s vengeful fury. Men have been gorging on righteous, blood-splattering pulp action rides like this one for decades, and if women are now looking for the equivalent, “Gunpowder Milkshake” fits the bill. Its message is that there are a lot of Bills to kill.