What if you could go back to the ’90s and early ’00s and remake all those self-consciously absurdist, ironically nihilistic action thrillers, but with women in the lead? You’d probably get something a lot like “Gunpowder Milkshake,” a pop-culture pastiche that feels persistently retro — and not in a good way.
Navot Papushado’s follow-up to his Israeli cult fave “Big Bad Wolves” sure looks promising: Lena Headey, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino and Angela Bassett lead an assassin group called the Librarians, who serve as mentors for up-and-coming hitwoman Sam (Karen Gillan, “Guardians of the Galaxy”).
Is it absolutely thrilling to see female icons in their 40s, 50s and 60s cast as take-no-prisoners badasses? Sure is. Is it totally dispiriting to watch their considerable talents increasingly wasted? Of course.
We do begin with a milkshake, in a 1950s diner, a recurring set that evokes unflattering comparisons to the thoughtfully-conjured vintage darkness of “Riverdale.” Preteen Sam gets one last chance to see her mother, Scarlet (Headey), before Mom dispatches a Russian villain and disappears for 15 years. During that time, unassuming kingpin Nathan (Paul Giamatti) trains Sam to work for a shadowy crime syndicate called The Firm. As Sam puts it, the Firm has “been running things for a long, long time. And when they need someone to clean up their mess, they send me.”
The current mess requires Sam to kill the son of a powerful mobster and then threaten an embezzling accountant — only it turns out the accountant stole the money to pay a ransom for his kidnapped little girl, Emily (Chloe Coleman, “Big Little Lies”). Things go south immediately, and soon Sam and Emily are on the lam, running from both the mobster and the Firm.
Fortunately, Sam is able to reunite with her mother, and they find a temporary haven in the Library, which boldly defies logic by being both a hideout and a giant, actual library featuring an impressive range of weapons hidden inside the books. (When you’re really in trouble, pull “Women Who Run With the Wolves” off the shelf.)
The other Librarians are skeptical at first, since they haven’t seen Scarlet since she disappeared years ago. Anna May (Bassett) seems particularly put out, suggesting a romantic subplot the movie isn’t brave enough to explore. But Madeleine (Gugino) and Florence (Yeoh) are delighted to embrace this new team of mother, daughter, and — as Emily calls herself — apprentice.
If you’re fine with an 8-year-old apprenticing herself to a bunch of assassins, you’re probably not looking for much in the way of emotion, lucidity, or even just satisfying plot development. Which is good, because you won’t find any of the above in the script Papushado co-wrote with Ehud Lavski. What you’ll get instead is a whole lot of stylized posturing, with bantering killers, winking nostalgia, and heavily-soundtracked violence. Think slo-mo fight scenes set to the Animals and Janis Joplin, and you’re three-quarters of the way there.
Even the fights, though, are a letdown. Yeoh’s most memorable line is “Hey dum-dums,” and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would hire her for an action movie and then give her so little to do. Gugino has one big scene, Bassett provides some steel, and Headey delivers her painfully clunky mother-daughter dialogue proficiently, but the action focuses primarily on Gillan, who does whatever she can with what she’s given.
The movie does look expensive, with impressive sets and detailed production design from David Scheunemann (“Inglorious Basterds”), as well as a seemingly unlimited filter budget for cinematographer Michael Seresin (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”). But despite a few highlights, most of the choreography feels as stale and unspontaneous as the over-edited imagery.
The only participant who emerges better off than when she came in is the gifted Coleman, a 12-year-old with a long career behind her and, now that she’s proven she can co-carry a movie alongside Oscar nominees, an even brighter one ahead.
Overall, the whole project feels weirdly empty and off-puttingly self-congratulatory, as though the very idea of turning women into action heroes is revolutionary. Is slotting women instead of men into the lead roles of generic genre movies still considered some sort of progress? You could spend hours pondering the depressing intimations of that question, particularly since there’s already a sequel in development. But frankly, we’d all make better use of our time just rewatching “Black Widow” instead.
“Gunpowder Milkshake” opens in select US theaters and on Netflix US on July 14.