Karen Gillan has come a long way in a few years. Since leaving Doctor Who in 2012, she’s co-starred in four Marvel movies, with at least two more to come, including a pivotal role in the temporary biggest film of all time (damn you, Avatar!); starred alongside The Rock twice; and made her feature writing and directing debut with the impressive The Party’s Just Beginning.
It’s not hard to see why Gillan has broken into the big leagues in a way that none of the Doctor’s former companions have previously. She’s a formidable comic actor, and – thanks to that Marvel fight training – an accomplished action star.
It's a shame then that Gunpowder Milkshake - her biggest lead role to date – doesn’t live up to her talents. While it plays very much to her strengths, giving her the opportunity to kick copious amounts of ass while delivering the kind of quirky humour she’s known for, the movie itself is a lightweight but enjoyable, gender-flipped John Wick pastiche.
Like Wick, Gillan’s Sam is a top assassin with a traumatic past. Whereas he’d lost his wife, Sam’s mother (Lena Headey – also a top assassin) went into hiding, leaving her to grow up alone. Like Wick, she’s spurred into action by running across the wrong people, in Sam’s case killing a gangster’s son while on a job. And like Wick, she must fight to survive in an underworld seemingly populated entirely by assassins.
Unlike Wick, however, Gunpowder Milkshake has its tongue firmly in its cheek, dishing out laughs alongside the carnage. It’s hard to imagine John Wick carrying his weapons around in a bag emblazoned with ‘I ♥ kittens,’ but Sam does. And action god that he may be, it’s hard to imagine Keanu Reeves performing a fight scene with both arms immobilised with anaesthetic and a weapon taped to each hand. Yet Gillan pulls it off with style – not easy when you’re wearing a gaudy orange bowling jacket (something else we doubt Reeves could even make look good).
It’s no surprise that she’s eventually reunited with Headey, alongside a trio of badass librarians/assassins (don’t ask) in the form of Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, and Angela Bassett. And where Wick had its luxurious Continental Hotel, true to its quirkier spirit, Gunpowder Milkshake has a retro '50s diner as its neutral ground – although copious amounts of gunpowder (not to mention milkshakes) are frequently evident in abundance on the premises, notably in a fun, one-shot fight scene, impressively staged by director Navot Papushado (Big Bad Wolves).
There’s a lot to enjoy here, not least fun performances from Gillan and Headey, who have great chemistry as the implausible mother/daughter pair (in reality there are only 14 years between them), some fun, quirky action scenes, and a typically smarmy turn from Paul Giamatti as Sam’s handler.
GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE is released theatrically and via Sky Cinema on September 17th