Everyone is smart and everyone is resourceful in The Way of the Gun, a refreshingly direct thriller that indulges in pretension but wins its stripes by avoiding nearly every form of stupidity.
The enterprising, clever characters concocted by writer-director Christopher McQuarrie just don’t make the forehead-slapping mistakes that often drive underwritten potboilers. They also don’t often kibitz about the kind of minutiae that made Quentin Tarantino famous. They’re simply focused on guns, money and women, the holy trinity of every testosterone-charged filmmaker from Peckinpah to Woo.
The woman in question is Robin (Juliette Lewis), the surrogate mother for an important syndicate bagman and his trophy wife. The antiheroes, nondescript mid-level crooks named Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), kidnap her from under the noses of two sharp-dressing bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt in phenomenal performances) and demand $15 million in ransom.
Joining the hunt is Sarno (James Caan), the bagman’s world-weary confidante who exudes the long-forgotten fragrance of menace that reminds one of, well, James Caan. “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor,” says Caan, who’s the crown jewel in the best-utilized cast on film this year.
Much of the film’s first 40 minutes—largely concerning the kidnapping and a resulting gunfight and chase—was filmed in downtown Salt Lake City. Parker and Longbaugh disjointedly wind their way through SLC’s back streets and Touched by an Angel’s favorite venues, going everywhere from the North Temple overpass near 300 West to that creepy alley across from the NAC printing plant.
The film’s setting presents a peculiar challenge for Wasatch Front viewers, who will find their attention drawn away from a fairly gripping, unorthodox chase by the familiar geographic venues in which it occurs. It’s similar to the problem afflicting the critics and fans who are panning The Way of the Gun: The setting is so familiar that it’s easy to miss the remarkable work being done in the foreground.
McQuarrie, who wrote the exhilarating and blessedly illogical The Usual Suspects, has fashioned a plot with a straight-ahead drive fueled by characters who run free from the normal encumbrances of action screenplays. They drive the story, rather than the other way around. McQuarrie’s camera work is similarly efficient; in his directorial debut, he’s content to keep things simple and rely on three choreographed gunfights, all of which are competent but unspectacular.
The picture drags in its middle third, when McQuarrie’s deliberate machinations begin to seem arbitrary simply because of their elaborateness. Family relations compound with heightened tensions in the careful framework of McQuarrie’s busy script.
His dialogue often strays to pretension (“Karma is only justice without satisfaction,” Caan opines), which ultimately just lends another layer of surreal shading to the noir doings. There’s also a pounding soundtrack, with the loudest gunshots in recent memory and several wincingly realistic instances of bullets entering flesh. None of it is really anything we haven’t seen before, but taken in its entirety, The Way of the Gun brings genuine novelty to a tired genre.
Because of the particular predecessors his style invokes, McQuarrie’s film will be held to a higher standard by moviegoers than, say, The Watcher or the latest Highlander picture.
But that’s unfair; The Way of the Gun doesn’t want the bemused, cynically funny attitude that Tarantino copyrighted with Pulp Fiction. It’s taking a cerebral walk on a well-traveled path, and it succeeds because of a talented cast and a script that rewards an attentive audience.
The Way of the Gun (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro and James Caan.