|© 2000-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)
makes his feature directorial debut with The Way of the Gun, a modern-day
pseudo-Western with the flavor of a film noir. The neophyte helmer has spoken in
interviews about how the 1955 John Sturges-directed Bad Day at Black Rock was
his inspiration for the look and feel of the film, and, indeed, the great British
cinematographer Dick Pope (best known for his collaboration with Mike Leigh)
beautifully captured the landscape of the American Southwest. Pope's use of light,
especially in the climactic scenes, is extraordinarily evocative and sets the
appropriate mood. Under McQuarrie's guidance, most of the performers deliver
strong turns, yet there is something about The Way of the Gun that doesn't
quite add up. There's a feeling of deja vu that permeates the film; one not only
feels one has seen it all before, one is certain one has seen it done better as well.
Perhaps such feelings arise because of McQuarrie's screenplay. As in
The Usual Suspects, he has created a rogue's gallery of lowlifes and unrepentant
criminals. Unlike that movie, however, which at least had the element of surprise
and came in the immediate wake of the Pulp Fiction, The Way of the Gun suffers
from the wannabe syndrome. Movie goers have already been subjected to so
many bad riffs on watered-down Tarantino that it seems like parody rather than
To his credit, McQuarrie gives each of the major characters a specific agenda
and seems to have deliberately set out to smash the clichés of Hollywood fare by
depicting principals with no redeeming qualities. Just as the audience might begin
to empathize and identify with a character, he or she reveals his or her true
nature. Juggling ten major figures, though, all of them unlikable on some level, is
ultimately off-putting to the audience though. Rather than try to pick one
character to root for, those watching the film are advised to sit back and watch as
the various plot points collide and bounce off one another like atoms in a nuclear
The incendiary storyline revolves around two nasty career criminals, the
narrator Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and his cohort Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro). By
giving these characters the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,
McQuarrie intended not only to invoke the mythic spirit of the Old West but also
to shatter the illusion of the lovable robber perpetuated in Hollywood mythology.
These are not the playful figures portrayed by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in
the original or Tom Berenger and William Katt in the prequel; rather these are
vicious killers without a conscience. Phillippe's voice-over narration drives the
point home in an effort to make sure the audience understands.
In need of some quick cash, the duo go to a clinic to serve as sperm donors.
While waiting their turn, they overhear talk of a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis)
for a wealthy local couple. As it happens, the woman is on her way in for a
checkup so the pair concoct a plan to kidnap her and hold her for ransom. What
they hadn't counted on was that the businessman (Scott Wilson) was deeply into
dealings with gangsters or that the woman's bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky
Katt) would be so dedicated to their work.
In the abduction sequence, McQuarrie injects dark humor by having the car
chase slow practically to the point where the men are using their feet to propel
the vehicles through narrow alleyways. There is a too clever quality to these
sequences that undercut the overall intentions. It's more of a director showing off
than germane to the plot.
Once Parker and Longbaugh accomplish their mission, though, the problems
mount. Gradually each person's goals come to the fore, although for most things
don't quite go as planned. The long set piece that concludes the film gives new
meaning to the old term of a "Mexican standoff."
The performers do what they can with their roles. Ryan Phillippe affects a
tough-guy accent for his role as the hotheaded narrator and it is a bit jarring, as
if he's playing at being a grown-up. Benicio Del Toro, on the other hand, is
convincing as the more experienced of the pair while Juliette Lewis is fine as
Robin, the surrogate mother. Her real-life father Geoffrey Lewis is on hand as a
suicidal henchman tracking her at the behest of the mob-connected James Caan
whose character may or may not have ties to the kidnap victim. Taye Diggs and
Nicky Katt are appropriately scary as her bodyguards, each of whom is out for
financial gain. Scott Wilson as the wealthy businessman, Kristin Lehman as his
ice princess wife and Dylan Kussman as the obstetrician with surprising ties to
several of the main characters round out the cast.
The basic problems with the film stem from McQuarrie's cerebral and too
clever approach to the material. He has stated in interviews that part of the
reason for his tackling this project was 1) the major studios would not fund his
dream project -- an epic biopic of Alexander the Great and 2) to rectify what he
perceived as a Hollywood fault: there had never been a satisfactory
kidnapping-themed film in his opinion. While his intentions may have been pure,
McQuarrie failed on count 2. The Way of the Gun on paper may have seemed a
surefire thing but in its execution, despite its grisly blood-soaked last reels, it
ends up firing nothing but round after round of blanks.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence/gore, language
and some sexuality
Running time: 119 min.