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Mike at the Movies: Guilty Pleasures

by MIKE ORLOCK

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A few years ago, before COVID-19 closed theaters across the country and created a booming market for streaming services, movies such as Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake would have been considered “counter-programming” and released against would-be blockbusters and awards-worthy “prestige” pictures. They’d be the kind of films that would fill out a marquee, play for a couple of weeks under the radar, hoping to make a minor splash in the spillover from big-name movies everyone was lining up to see, then make a beeline to home video.

If they were lucky – or good – they might generate a buzz and hit it big at the box office.

John Wick was one of those movies. The original, which reinvigorated the career of Keanu Reeves, debuted without fanfare in late October 2014, a week after the release of eventual Oscar winner Birdman and just before some holiday heavyweights (Disney’s Big Hero 6, Interstellar, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1), and it raked in a surprising $130 million. Granted, that seems pretty paltry next to the budget of some films (Interstellar cost $175 million to make), but John Wick cost only $20 million, with little spent on promotion, and its success has resulted in three sequels.

Had they had the opportunity to open widely in theaters, maybe Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake would have found similar success. Like John Wick, both are stylish, funny and hyper-violent: two hours of carefully choreographed mayhem that never pauses long enough to allow the audience to see how ridiculous the stories are. 

As with Wick, the protagonists are professional assassins who find themselves targets just as they’re ready to call it a career. The twist in these movies – what gives them a kick – is that the killers are women and every bit as lethal as any man.

Kate stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the title role and a folksy Woody Harrelson as her father figure and longtime manager. A job in Japan taking out a ruthless businessman goes sideways, and Kate announces she’s had enough. She’s out. 

If only it were that simple. She’s slipped a poisonous mickey during a casual hookup in Tokyo, and this launches her on a body-strewn vendetta against those who have betrayed her. 

Along the way, she takes as a hostage a Yakuza boss’s teenage daughter (Miku Martineau, whose performance provides most of the film’s comic relief) to use as a pawn to get to the guy she’s really interested in killing. But soon Kate is protecting her hostage more than threatening her during a nonstop series of deadly encounters with Yakuza henchmen whom she slices, dices and disposes of with moves that John Wick might envy.

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (Snow White and the Huntsman) gives the film a fizzy vitality that never gets bogged down in plot points or character development. The propulsive action is all that matters, and the violent set pieces play out like music videos against the lights and colors of Tokyo, until Kate finally kills her way up the food chain of criminals conspiring against her. By that time, there are no real surprises left – just an exhausted realization that there probably won’t be a sequel.

Gunpowder Milkshake is even more deliriously over the top. In fact, it makes Kate seem realistic in comparison. Starring Karen Gillan (a recognizable face from Guardians of the Galaxy), this film by Israeli director Navot Papushado borrows heavily from the John Wick canon, giving us a violent odyssey through a criminal underworld from a wholly female perspective.

Gillan plays Sam, a nice girl with abandonment issues who follows in her mommy’s career of being an A-list hit woman. She balks at completing her last job, which would involve killing a child. Her scruples put her on the outs with her employer, Nathan (an especially wormy Paul Giamatti), who sics an army of thugs on her in revenge. Lena Headey plays Sam’s mother, Scarlet, who disappeared early in Sam’s life but returns to up the body count when Sam needs her most.

The most memorable set piece in the film takes place in The Library, which functions in the same way as the Continental Hotel in John Wick. It is a place where professional assassins can go for sisterly advice and ammunition, presided over by three matronly “librarians” (Carla Gugino, Michelle Yeoh and Angela Bassett) who rigorously enforce the neutrality rules of their establishment until it is violated by some bone-headed men. Then all hell breaks loose, and Milkshake really hits the fan!

Are these great movies? Hardly. They’re more guilty pleasures that you might feel reluctant discussing with friends who have high opinions of you. But if you have time to kill (no pun intended) without wanting to expend any brain cells, you could stream worse.

Kate and Gunpowder Milkshake, both rated R for gratuitous violence and language, are currently streaming on Netflix.

In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.