The Way of the Gun (2000)Artisan EntertainmentWritten and Directed by Christopher McQuarrieStarring Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillippe
“For the record, I’ll call myself Mr. Parker; my associate will be Mr. Longbaugh. At some point it became clear to us that our path had been chosen and we had nothing to offer the world, so we stepped off the path and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us.”
From this, the introduction to Christopher McQuarrie’s slick and violent directorial debut The Way of the Gun, the mood is set for this story of a heist gone wrong in every imaginable way. “Parker” and “Longbaugh” are the only names ever given for the starring duo, pseudonyms which also happen to be the surnames of another infamous pair of thieves, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Like their namesakes, the protagonists are a couple of crooks who’ve found that they no longer fit into the civilized world.
Parker (del Toro) and Longbaugh (Phillippe) are drifters and petty thieves, wandering the country with little more than clothes and a car, selling blood and other bodily fluids to earn enough money to get by. When they overhear the story of Robin, a young woman being paid $1 million to serve as a surrogate mother, they see the way to financial security: a little kidnapping, a big ransom, and a retirement in Mexico.
As Parker himself later notes, “…a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.”
From the moment the kidnapping takes place, nothing goes as planned for anyone involved. Robin, played by Juliette Lewis (The Other Sister, Natural Born Killers), is having second thoughts about her own plan for instant wealth. Her bodyguards-turned-pursuers, however, have absolutely no doubt about whether or not she will be fulfilling her obligations. Robin is just days away from delivery, obviously not a great time to be kidnapped, and to top it all off, the Chidducks, whose baby Robin is carrying, are involved in some shady business dealings so they can’t pay the ransom without getting busted themselves.
Like McQuarrie’s Oscar-winning previous work The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun is definitely not a simple movie in structure or in story. This film rates about 8 out of 10 on the attention-span-o-meter, so no wandering in and out during this one. All of the characters have their own motivation, and they are all tied up in this situation more tightly than it would first appear. The one thing you can never accuse McQuarrie of being is predictable, and like The Usual Suspects, this film gives you plenty to think about afterwards.
Unfortunately, this complexity is also the biggest weakness of The Way of the Gun. With so many twists in the plot, they sometimes become peripheral to the story. Some of the revelations that crop up late in the movie really don’t add much at all to anyone’s story, and one surprise twist too many steals the impact of the truly important moments.
Fortunately McQuarrie is a natural at directing, and this film has style to spare. It’s the most brightly-lit film noir you’ll ever see. Particularly memorable are the smooth and practiced feel of Parker and Longbaugh’s shootouts and the low-speed car chase (think idling motors, open doors, and gunplay with people moving freely in and out of their vehicles throughout). McQuarrie obviously picked up a few things from director Bryan Singer on the set of The Usual Suspects, and fans of that movie will see much in common between the two films, especially a scene in an elevator that seems oddly familiar.
Benicio del Toro (Traffic, The Usual Suspects) gives a sympathetic and believable performance as Longbaugh, providing the elder and more bitter voice of our anti-heroes, while Ryan Phillippe (I Know What You Did Last Summer, Cruel Intentions) provides a convincing Parker and in the process does an admirable job of proving that he can hold his own in a film where the average age of the cast is over 25. Despite his smaller role, the most memorable performance of the film comes from James Caan (The Godfather, Misery) as Joe Sarno, the grizzled major-domo of the Chidducks’ operations. He makes an impression early, when a cocky bodyguard makes a veiled threat and his only reply as he walks out of the room is “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor.” More than anyone else in this convoluted tale, Sarno is involved in a much deeper way than you know, and Caan’s interpretation of Sarno will definitely leave an impression.
Overall, McQuarrie’s directorial debut is interesting, but doesn’t carry the kind of impact he obviously intended. Like David Russell’s vastly underrated Three Kings, The Way of the Gun is the story of a clever heist which unfortunately runs head-on into ugly complicated reality. As you might expect, if you don’t like guns, this film is not for you. However, if you’re a fan of McQuarrie’s previous works, if you found Three Kings interesting, or if noir-revival films like L.A. Confidential are your thing, The Way of the Gun is definitely worth seeing.