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The Way of the Gun

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Ryan Phillippe prepares to unleash his cruel intentions on an innocent car.

2000, Artisan Entertainment
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Christopher McQuarrie, writer of "The Usual Suspects", has said he chose for his directorial debut a crime movie that would keep people from ever asking him to make a crime movie again. He’s done it. Postmodern, post-macho, post-Tarantino … post-everything except absurdity, "The Way of the Gun" (IMDb listing) definitely seems like the welcomed last word in its genre.

Which is not to say that the movie is particularly good, but neither is it particularly bad. Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro star as two young thugs who've eschewed both civil society and petty crime, choosing instead to be exclusively interested in executing one big score. They stumble onto a doozy: kidnapping the surrogate mother of someone rich enough to afford a surrogate mother. And—surprise—that someone turns out to be a crimelord.

Presumably, you see where things go from here, and, in fact, you may have seen it from the first frame. That it's hackneyed is part of its effect—everyone in the movie knows just how badly it's going to end. McQuarrie is pretty masterful in manipulating this feedback loop; he seems to take particular delight in having his MacGuffin be a fetus. Just in time for the Sydney games, we have an Olympic-caliber envelope pusher. (No strip of film ever made is more profanty-drenched than the opening scene, and it's no coincidence that the movie shares a brothel-shootout climax with Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," one of the great and most controversial cinematic dissertations on violence and society.)

The movie itself is a pretty mean pleasure, and the oh-he's-the-father style melodrama is a little played out to be entirely satisfying. The only real surprise of the film is how much it's saved by its acting: Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs are fantastic as the fully detached detachment of besuited tough guys protecting the unborn child, if not the mother (Juliette Lewis); James Caan, Scott Wilson and Geoffrey Lewis are token O.G. characters given so much more than token attention; and Dylan Kussmann, as the doctor forced to perform the delivery, is a great foil for Phillippe and Del Toro as well as for Lewis.

But it's the two main characters who really have the magnetic pull. It's fun to watch Phillippe atomize his pretty boy persona, although he's hardly on the short list of this generation's great actors. In "Cruel Intentions" Phillippe did almost all of his acting with his lips, but here those lips join his whole body in a state of perpetual slouch that, particularly with the incessant mumbling, recalls Del Toro's Fenster from "The Usual Suspects." Del Toro, on the other hand, remains one of the few people whose coolness is only tangentially captured by the camera. His distance is so comfortable on him, so bewitching, that he glances the celluloid more than he resides in it. That said, he also gives his most human performance yet under McQuarrie's direction, at his best reminding you of when James Dean got that weird, prescient look in his eyes like he knew he would die young.
"Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" made the quasi-philosophical sado-gangster movie the new face of independent film, and while a few worthy entries like "Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels" sometimes emerge, the population consists mostly of easily discarded fare like "2 Days in the Valley," "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" and "Suicide Kings." The genre's pioneers, particularly Tarantino, were trafficking in the new cool, but their sycophants have been making staggeringly unhip, vacuously violent poseur-fests.

All of these movies have been begotten by other movies more than by real life, but those bloodlines also run in reverse. This isn't "Bonnie & Clyde"; " The Way of the Gun" doesn't speak to a dispossessed generation of young Americans nearly as well as it speaks to a dispossessed generation of young American filmmakers. And its prepossessed fatalism and endless hail of bullets make a quite convincing argument that everything that's going to be said with this form has, for the time being, been said; it's time to move on.

That may be an optimistic reading of the film, but one can always hope. As another link in the chain, "The Way of the Gun" is an interminable celebration of more more more; as the last rung, it packs quite a punch.

Filmfodder Grade: B-

Review courtesy Flak Magazine

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