The Way of the Gun, 2000.
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie.
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Benicio del Toro, Juliette Lewis, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Geoffrey Lewis and James Caan.
Two men are tired of the path life has planned out for them, so they attempt to kidnap the surrogate mother of a very wealthy man.
“So, you the brains of this outfit, or is he?” asks Joe Sarno (James Caan) in a sweaty café close to the Mexican border during the film’s best scene. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think this is a brains kind of operation,” replies Longbaugh (Benecio del Toro).
Their exchange applies to the film as a whole. There are some cool lines and well-executed action scenes, but it all appears to have been thrown at the wall hoping some of it would stick, the wall being The Way of the Gun’s direction and narrative.
Longbaugh and Parker (Ryan Phillippe) are two men who have rejected the “natural order of things”. They have found themselves in a life where their only options are to commit petty crime or earn minimum wage. Both are pretty small fry, whether legal or illegal.
To escape from this rut, they decide to do something big: kidnap a pregnant woman, Robin (Juliette Lewis), who is the surrogate mother for a powerful gangster’s unborn child. They only know that the ransom could be pretty big, not to whom the child belongs. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.
But this is never communicated clearly enough. So dejected from life are Longbaugh and Parker that they show no concern over whether they live or die. When they find out to who the baby belongs, both no-sell the revelation. Presumably, the intention is to portray them as a couple of bad-asses, which they are, but the act runs pretty thin after about an hour in. How are we supposed to care if they visibly do not?
Their backstories are not properly handled. The opening voice over reveals that they’ve suddenly decided to become big-time gangsters, and very little else is explained for the two protagonists. This method works with Longbaugh and Sarno, but the other characters aren’t cool enough to get away with it. There is nobody to root for. They all come across as quite selfish people, and the ones that aren’t don’t care.
The narrative becomes a cat’s cradle after a while. It starts off with the aforementioned kidnap of a surrogate mother, but then practically everyone involved starts to hatch their own little double crosses. There are several plot twists also, just to tangle things further.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but nobody appears to care about what they’re doing. The two henchmen looking to kill Longbaugh and Parker, double cross their boss and take the money for themselves share the exact same flaw as their targets – they show hardly any emotion and have little at stake. Their personalities are also sorely lacking.
Del Toro plays Longbaugh very well, and his scene with Sarno – the only other intriguing character – colours his backstory without giving anything away. Longbaugh and Sarno can talk this way because they used to be in the same line of work. You get the gist of their history from the things they talk about, like Ryan Gosling’s unnamed lead in Drive. Caan speaks his lines with considerable weight, his past sapping at his energy, but also with a cheery nostalgia. He’s a wise, old man. And if there’s anything you take away from that, he tells one of the henchmen, it’s that he’s a survivor.
Both characters posses a poignancy that is beyond everyone else onscreen too cool to care. So why give the opening and closing voice over to Parker? Longbaugh genuinely doesn’t appear concerned whether he lives or dies. Parker, save one, out of place epiphany two thirds of the way into the film, comes across as disinterested punk.
Allegedly, The Way of the Gun has a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. The shootouts are very good and wouldn’t look out of place in a latter day, action film Western. And the entire piece does have a distinct tone, in the way that cult films often do.
Cults have been formed on far less, but that doesn’t mean this one is a brains kind of operation.
365 Days, 100 Films