Back in 1992, when Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs introduced the Mexican standoff — guys with guns, locked and loaded, at point-blank face-off — to viewers who had never seen a John Woo film, it seemed crazy, thrilling, and funky-metaphorical (those guns weren’t just weapons — they were the characters’ wills). When you see that same lethal pose in The Way of the Gun, Christopher McQuarrie’s cheeky, bloody, floridly twisty kidnap thriller, it’s still amusing, but it’s now about as novel as hearing the recitation of Miranda rights on a TV crime show. That goes for the movie, too.
Five years ago, The Way of the Gun might have been heralded as a crackerjack entry in the Tarantino school of too-hip-for-the-room gunplay/dialogue/casting/sadism. The picture is about a couple of trash-talking petty sociopaths, Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), who improvise a daredevil scheme to abduct the very pregnant, very desperate Robin (Juliette Lewis), who has agreed, for $1 million, to carry the baby of a crooked L.A. business tycoon and his barren trophy wife. The kidnappers and their hostage hole up in a seedy motel just south of the Mexican border, and the negotiations, not to mention the double crosses and reversals, commence from there.
McQuarrie is best known for the zesty — and, to me, naggingly illogical — convolutions of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Now that he’s out on his own, writing and directing a movie that’s a slavish homage to the mighty QT, Blood Simple, and the bullet-strewn hyperbole of Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, it’s clear that, derivative though he may be, he’s a natural born filmmaker. Among the many entertaining elements of The Way of the Gun are a couple of devious and poker-faced bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt), some meticulously jazzy shoot-outs featuring perhaps the loudest gunfire you’ve ever heard, and a wickedly laid-back, smooth-as-old-bourbon performance by James Caan as an avuncular hitman/”adjudicator” who speaks in Zen pulp aphorisms (”$15 million is not money. It’s a modem with a universal adapter on it”).
McQuarrie has a gift for curveball casting. He puts the baby-faced Ryan Phillippe in a scruffy beard and turns him into a junior Christopher Walken psycho, and he has Taye Diggs deliberately dial down his charm to a steely stealth cool. Juliette Lewis is the film’s vulnerable center, and she’s terrific. So why isn’t The Way of the Gun more of a knockout? I think that’s because there’s something transparently diagrammed about the whole enterprise. Even the gaudiest twists in, say, A Simple Plan emerged from a conflux of human frailty and ego. McQuarrie keeps his heroes at ironic arm’s length, and he’s too enamored of high-body-count action dazzle: Does the final showdown at a Wild Bunch-style brothel really have to go on for 20 minutes? The Way of the Gun plays like an unusually ritzy festival-circuit audition film, though McQuarrie, it must be said, aces the audition. B