Christopher McQuarrie wrote the fantastic screenplay for The Usual Suspects. Then he wrote and directed this slightly less than fantastic film. Chief Justice Mike Jackson rules on this ode to violence. Read it, or he promises you a day of reckoning you won't live long enough to never forget.
"So, you the brains of this outfit, or is he?"
It sounds like a winning proposition…the writer of The Usual Suspects directing his first feature from his own script; a winning cast; and tons of gunplay, violence, and car "chases." So, why is Way of the Gun so unsatisfying? Or is it that the film just needs to grow on you?
Facts of the Case
Way of the Gun is the story of two unrepentantly bad hombres pseudonymically referred to as Parker (Ryan Phillippe—White Squall, Cruel Intentions) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro—The Usual Suspects, Traffic). (Astute filmgoers will recognize these as the real last names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) They've been joined at the hip for some time, drifting about, making money in whatever way then can, thoroughly escaping any vestiges of responsibility. While waiting to make a deposit at a sperm bank, they overhear a loquacious orderly talking on the phone about a patient. Seems she's being paid handsomely to have a baby for a very rich and very protective couple. The two concoct a scheme to kidnap the girl for a hefty ransom.
A few hitches aside, they manage to pull of Step One of the plan. With the pregnant girl (Juliette Lewis—Cape Fear, Strange Days) in tow, they hightail it and call in their ransom demands. Without giving away too many plot details, they learn that the girl is having the baby for a very well connected mobster (Scott Wilson—Dead Man Walking, Pearl Harbor), who dispatches his most trusted associate, Joe Sarno (James Caan—The Godfather, Eraser), to clean up the mess.
Way of the Gun is the work of Christopher McQuarrie, who of course you'll remember was the writer of The Usual Suspects. He won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1996 for that work. Besides being a brilliant caper movie, it also featured dialogue crackling with energy. Much of the genius he displayed in The Usual Suspects is also evident here. Way of the Gun has the same insightful-yet-profane dialogue. Its story is equally labyrinthine, in fact probably more so. The parallels largely end there, as the script was the extent of McQuarrie's involvement with The Usual Suspects. With Way of the Gun, he also shouldered the responsibility of directing. Way of the Gun is his first feature film, unlike Bryan Singer who had directed a feature (Public Access, which was written by McQuarrie) before his breakout with The Usual Suspects. Singer's direction was self-assured, his camera floating almost god-like through the scenes. It's the best work he's done to date.
McQuarrie's direction seems to have the same self-assurance (though listening to the commentary, he didn't seem to think he knew anything about what he was doing). He seems to be evoking a different style of filmmaking. Comparisons to the work of Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) are inevitable, though he purposely avoided some of his trademarks that have become clichés, such as the use of slow motion during gunfights. He often uses static camera setups, taking master shots or two-shots. The film has the esthetic of 1970s action cinema: obviously as already noted The Wild Bunch (okay, so it was released in 1969…don't be picky), but also films such as The French Connection or Dirty Harry. Many have also remarked that it is a modern Western sans horses or cowboy hats. While I'm not a fan of the Western genre (in fact, I think the only Western I really like is Sam Raimi's revisionist take on the genre, The Quick And The Dead), I can see the obvious parallels. The movie could take place a hundred years…wait, 100 years ago would still be in the 20th century. Okay, so it could take place 140 years ago, minus the cell phones and substituting horses for cars, and it would essentially be the same movie. That's pretty cool in my book.
McQuarrie is aided and abetted by a very capable cast. In a glitzier movie, I may call the cast "stellar," but "very capable" will do here. As the vicious duo of Parker and Longbaugh, Phillippe and Del Toro give excellent understated performances. Under the direction of someone else, their understatedness could have given way to Al Pacino-style histrionics, but they maintain low-key, cool attitudes that make their characters that much more menacing and believable. (By "cool," I don't mean the disaffected hipness that directors like Guy Ritchie associate with that word. I mean the "cool" that Samuel L. Jackson brought to his role of Jules in Pulp Fiction: the bad mutha who could handle any situation without blowing his top.) I was particularly impressed with Ryan Philippe. With Benicio Del Toro, I expect top-notch acting after his fantastic turns in The Usual Suspects and Steven Soderbergh's Traffic. I'm a big fan of Del Toro—hell, I even saw Excess Baggage because he was in it. With Phillippe, I expected the petulant spoiled pretty boy of Cruel Intentions. What he delivers is very much the polar opposite of Sebastian Valmont. He is easily the bad-ass equal of Del Toro.
Juliette Lewis has never been one of my favorite actresses. She's talented, it's quite obvious, but her nasal drawl and the unlikability of her characters (see Strange Days or From Dusk Till Dawn, or especially Natural Born Killers) just turns me off. I class her with Jennifer Jason Leigh, but at least she's been in a few roles I've liked (The Hudsucker Proxy and eXistenZ). As Robin, the pregnant girl, the only time we ever get a palpable sense of her emotions is during a showy monologue in a hotel room (and what kind of self-respecting post-Tarantino crime movie wouldn't give each of its characters the chance to wax prosaic?).
I have not mentioned their characters to this point, but Taye Diggs (House On Haunted Hill) and Nicky Katt (Boiler Room) both turn in very credible and very bad-ass turns as the bodyguards assigned to protect Robin. Their best work comes early in the film as Parker and Longbaugh initially try to kidnap Robin. Very rarely have I seen actors furnish such excellent nonverbal performances in this sort of movie.
The real gem of Way of the Gun is James Caan as Joe Sarno, the grizzled old bagman who's seen it all and lived to tell about it. Looking through his filmography, I don't see many titles I've seen. I (gasp!) haven't seen any of the Godfather films (as soon as they're on DVD, I swear!), so the roles I most strongly associate him with are the stinkers Eraser and Honeymoon in Vegas. In Eraser, his overacting would put William Shatner to shame—there's something to be said when you make Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robert Pastorelli look like master thespians. His role in Honeymoon in Vegas was much better, but there it was Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker's low-cut tops that did the overacting. But I digress. Sarno is the sort of role that you'd typically associate with Kris Kristofferson: grizzled, menacing, given to few words, but when he does talk you should listen because it is the voice of experience. If any character in Way of the Gun is sympathetic, it is Sarno. We can feel the burden of that experience upon his shoulders, and we can tangibly feel his need to fulfill his obligations.
Anyway, so what's the disc like?
Artisan does their typical bang-up job of the DVD of Way of the Gun. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It looks as good as it did when I saw it theatrically, though given the dismal state of most movie theatres, that isn't saying much. The image is very nearly defect free, marred only by occasional grain (I think an element of the movie's retro style) or dust. The most glaring problem is roughly five seconds of very noticeable shimmer in a fine-patterned hotel roof in the film's second act. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is equally impressive. All channels are used actively, drawing you into the story. The best example of the sound design (and how well it translates to the home theater system) is chapter 20, with cars screeching to a halt in a gravel parking lot and the subsequent gunfight. It's quite groovy. Not to get off-track, but there's another reason to pay attention to that scene. When the second car comes screeching into the parking lot, notice that the car stops and the actors emerge from the car and walk toward the camera all in one continuous take. Yes, according to McQuarrie's commentary, Nicky Katt WAS doing the fancy driving.
For extras, we are given a commentary track, cast bios and interviews, an isolated music track, and a "deleted scene." Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and composer Joe Kraemer recorded the commentary. Their very familiar conversation reveals many details about the making of the film, and added to my appreciation of the film. Really, that's the whole point behind a commentary track, or at least the point behind the best ones (i.e. Alexander Payne's commentary on the Election disc, or Steven Soderbergh and and Neil LaBute's conversational commentary on sex lies and videotape). Kraemer also provides commentary specific to the score on the isolated music track. The cast bios rather creatively intersperse the textual information screens with interview snippets with that particular actor. It may just be me, or have you also noticed that actors rarely have anything intelligent to say? I ensconced deleted scene in quotes because it's not really a deleted scene per se. It's a scene from the screenplay that was storyboarded but never filmed. You get to read it from the script, and can switch to alternate screens with the storyboards. Roughly half of it is an alternate version of the opening scene of the film, while the other half is a tangential story of Parker and Longbaugh's inept life of crime. It's a rather unnecessary scene, as the opening already is a tangent showing their "don't give a damn" personalities.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I said at the top that I didn't find Way of the Gun to be a satisfying movie experience. Well, that's the opinion I had after seeing it in the theatres during its brief run. After watching it again, once with the commentary and once sans commentary, I grew to appreciate it a little more. I don't want to give away the end of the film, but the first time I saw it, it disappointed me thoroughly. I was also rather put off by the unsympathetic characters. If you can't care about them, if you can't get any emotional involvement in their predicaments, what's the point? It's the same problem as Brian Helgeland's original vision of Payback, before star Mel Gibson stepped in and changed the third act of the film. If we can't find any reason to be sympathetic for or to care about the characters, how can we "root for the bad guy" (as Payback's trailers admonished)?
With repeat viewings, I may not have found reasons to care about Parker and Longbaugh, but I got to know them a little better and could appreciate their motivations. When…whatever happens to them at the end of the film happens, it does finally garner some emotion. They may not be modern Robin Hoods, breaking the law for the good of the oppressed, but they have their own code of honor and loyalty. Del Toro and Caan develop a relationship not unlike Al Pacino's cop and Robert De Niro's robber in Heat. They're on opposite sides, but they play by the same rules.
McQuarrie deftly handles the action scenes of Way of the Gun, but when things are quiet and still he has a difficult time getting his talented actors to do what he has in mind. The actors try valiantly, but cannot compensate for problems with his inexperienced direction.
This is something of a mixed compliment/complaint. Way of the Gun is a very realistically gory movie. It's not as over-the-top as Paul Verhoeven's original cut of Robocop, but there is more than ample blood. It was almost to the point that it made this jaded action film buff queasy. But, kudos are due KNB EFX Group for the realistic blood and gore prosthetics. In case you're not familiar with that name, they've done makeup effects for scores of horror movies, such as Army of Darkness, Scream, John Carpenter's Vampires, Ravenous, Bride of Re-Animator, and From Dusk Till Dawn, as well as other makeup-heavy productions like Men In Black and Spawn.
It's becoming a frequent complaint with discs produced by both Artisan and Anchor Bay, but I really am not pleased that they do not include English subtitles. This is a disservice to not just the hard of hearing community, but to anyone who has ever struggled to understand dialogue or must listen to films at a low volume. Shame on them.
If you've read this far, and have been encouraged by what you've read, by all means give Way of the Gun a rental. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. Just don't expect a "post-modern" crime caper in the Quentin Tarantino vein. Expect something more like the gritty action of the 1970s.
Lest I forget, there is one other cast member worthy of note. Geoffrey Lewis plays an aging bagman buddy of Sarno who gets involved in the kidnapping affair. Lewis is a veteran actor. He'll be instantly recognized by "X-Files" fans for a guest star turn he did a few years back, where he played a photographer who could sense when people were about to die. He also appeared in numerous Clint Eastwood flicks, including High Plains Drifter, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and Every Which Way But Loose. More germane to discussion of Way of the Gun, however, is the fact that he is the father of Juliette Lewis. This is the only movie in which they have appeared together, and they don't act next to each other in the entire film (though they do share one scene).
Here's a little tidbit I like to share whenever the name Benicio Del Toro is raised. Do you know what his film debut was? No, it wasn't the James Bond movie he was in, Licence to Kill. No, it wasn't that dud Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which starred Marlon Brando and Tom Selleck. It was Big Top Pee-Wee, the inferior sequel to Tim Burton's fantastic Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (he didn't helm the sequel, by the way). He played a character named "Duke the Dog-Faced Boy."
One last thing. Remember when I said there was a car "chase"? If there is one point in the entirety of Way of the Gun that McQuarrie transcends the crime caper movie genre, it is this one scene. It can probably be best compared to when the cops "chased" O.J. Simpson's white Ford Bronco down the L.A. freeway at 5 MPH. As car chases go, it is brilliant.
Way of the Gun is acquitted due to its creative use of its genre. Artisan is also let off the hook, though they are warned that inclusion of subtitles will curry the court's favor.
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