The Way of the Gun
Screenplay : Christopher McQuarrie
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Ryan Phillippe (Parker), Benicio Del Toro (Longbaugh), Juliette Lewis (Robin), Taye Diggs (Jeffers), Nicky Katt (Obecks), Scott Wilson (Chidduck), James Caan (Joe Sarno), Dylan Kussman (Dr. Allen Painter), Kristin Lehman (Francesca Chidduck), Geoffrey Lewis (Abner)
From its earliest inception, the movies have engaged in an ongoing love affair with the criminal. The most popular genres--the Western, the gangster flick, film noir--all revolved around criminals as the central characters. Yet, while engaging in this affair, movies often feel moved to romanticize the criminal in order to lessen the impact of the complicit audience falling in love with wrong doers. Granted, those early Production Code-mandated themes of crime not paying were obviously tacked on, but even then you could sense how much affection the filmmakers held for their criminal characters.
If Quentin Tarantino has been seen as the torchbearer of criminal filmmaking in the 1990s (his "Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," and "Jackie Brown" both rewrote and re-established all the criminal conventions of the cinema), then Christopher McQuarrie, who won the 1995 screenwriting Oscar for scripting Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects," is looking to carry that torch forward on his own terms. His affinity for the criminal will likely be compared to Tarantino's, but McQuarrie's is a much different mentality. While Tarantino tends to juice up his narratives with the pounding force of retro music, a wicked sense of humor, and the omnipresence of pop culture, McQuarrie reduces his narrative to its starkest elements, replacing Tarantino's hip polish with a grave existentialism that is more reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah or the early films of William Friedkin.
The title of McQuarrie's directorial debut, "The Way of the Gun," essentially speaks for itself as well as all other crime genre movies. In it, McQuarrie takes a bold step forward with a markedly grim, fatalistic tale of petty criminals making a bid for the big time and finding that they have bitten off more than they can chew.
The two (anti)heroes of the film are Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), two young men who, having found themselves faced with a life of either minimum wage or petty crime, chose the latter. One day, they hatch an over-the-top plan that involves kidnapping Robin (Juliette Lewis), a surrogate mom who is literally days away from giving birth to a child for an aging steel tycoon with mob ties named Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and his trophy wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman).
Parker and Longbaugh steal Robin out from under a squad of Chidduck's body guards and take her south of the border. At this point, you can almost hear McQuarrie's typewriter kick into overdrive as he begins to, piece by piece, unfold the layers of deception and deceit that enfold each of the characters. Lies, double crosses, and the revelation of surprising relationships come one after the other with almost rhythmic precision; there are so many revelations, in fact, that they become almost deadening. New characters emerge to complicate matters, including James Caan as Joe Sarno, Chidduck's clean-up man. Sarno is old school, the kind of seasoned gangster who wears his age as a badge of honor; he is, in his own words, a survivor.
"The Way of the Gun" is paradoxical in the fact that it is mired in both a grisly realism and almost absurd sense of operatic embellishment. Consider that the climax takes place in a grungy Mexican hotel with a nervous doctor performing an on-the-spot C-section on Robin while Parker and Longbaugh shoot it out with at least a dozen of Chidduck's hit men, often interrupting the make-shift operation with their violence. The situation is so over-the-top it is almost comical, yet McQuarrie continually brings it back down to earth with his simple directorial style and blood-and-guts aesthetic.
Make no mistake, "The Way of the Gun" is a superbly violent film, one that relishes pain and torture. Kneecaps are shot out, a character dives into broken glass, and at one point Parker and Longbaugh string up one of their enemies and stretch his limbs to the point of quartering in order to get information. Marcellus Wallas may have threatened to get "medieval" in "Pulp Fiction," but in "The Way of the Gun," we actually see Parker and Longbaugh follow through.
Much of the film rides on Phillippe and Del Toro, and they are both solid in their roles. Phillippe, emerging from several years of teen roles, seems to be especially relishing this dark turn. He speaks in short clips, as if he doesn't have time for long sentences, and he shows adeptness as snarling and holding a shotgun with authority, two mainstays of the modern cinematic criminal. Del Toro, a veteran of "The Usual Suspects," has a naturally shady air to him, and he lends a sense of overconfidence to the role that lets us know just how deep he's in.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about "The Way of the Gun" is that it doesn't sell out. From the outset, McQuarrie sets up a fatalistic, unwinable struggle for his protagonists, and he sees it through to the end, right down the bloody finale and Parker's voice-over that assures the audience that he and Longbaugh are not looking for sympathy or redemption. There is, alas, no redemption to be found here, but that's McQuarrie's whole point. The strong survive as they always have, and the weak are trampled underfoot. Parker and Longbaugh are both and neither, and the ambiguity of their fates at the end of the film attests to that fact.
©2000 James Kendrick