At one point in “Gunpowder Milkshake,” Navot Papushado’s slick, homage-heavy Netflix crime picture, Michelle Yeoh has a raucous fist fight with a Russian mobster that culminates in her strangling him to death with a length of steel chain. Now, this is important information, because Yeoh is one of the greatest screen martial artists of all time and, now at 58, is rarely afforded opportunities to pummel bad guys with gratuitous flair. Papushado lets her wreak carnage — alongside the great Angela Bassett, who wields a pair of claw hammers — and for that we can be grateful.
I would have liked to have seen an entire movie about Yeoh and Bassett, who play the Librarians, assassins who operate a space that serves as both a sanctuary and an armory for others in the profession. The two are infinitely more interesting than the actual hero of the film, a young assassin named Sam (Karen Gillan) who finds herself embroiled in an elaborate kidnapping plot that involves a shadowy underground crime syndicate known as the Firm. Gillan, blithely quipping as she dispatches waves of anonymous henchmen, seems totally flat in comparison to the magnetic stars with whom she shares the screen.
Papushado, who garnered acclaim as a co-director of the blackly comic thriller “Big Bad Wolves,” is clearly a movie buff, and “Gunpowder Milkshake” feels like a composite of cinephile-friendly references. The splashy, neon-hued aesthetic draws from Michael Mann’s “Thief” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” while the sprawling, complexly choreographed action sequences riff on the Hong Kong shoot-‘em-ups of the 1980s and ’90s, chiefly John Woo’s “The Killer” and Johnnie To’s “Running Out of Time.” Perhaps unavoidably, thanks to its real-time plotting and complicated underworld mythology, it feels strikingly similar to “John Wick.”
The filmmaking favors the kinds of showy stylistic flourishes — slow motion dollies, split diopter shots — that, when used tastefully, can make action dazzle, as in the films of Brian De Palma. But Papushado’s flamboyance feels cocky and indiscriminate, as if he’s simply trying really hard to make every image seem cool. While this may guarantee the movie a long Twitter afterlife through GIFs and screenshots, it doesn’t make for particularly savvy or sophisticated cinema.
Rated R for graphic violence and some inappropriate language. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes. Watch on Netflix.
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