[8 December 2009]
If Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is credited with revitalizing the western, and No Country For Old Men is the culmination of the genre, then The Way of the Gun should be recognized as a significant part of the transition period from one Oscar winner to another. Though it received much less acclaim than the Coen brothers’ effort, Christopher McQuarrie’s only directing feature to date is definitely grounded in traditional modes of western filmmaking. The dialog is sparse. The shots are wide. The protagonists are gunslingers. But now, thanks to the now institutional post-modern mentality, morals play a much more significant part in the events unfolding on screen.
The setup is simple at first, but McQuarrie hints at a deeper complexity before events start to spin out of control in the second and third acts. Two outlaws (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) kidnap a pregnant woman (Juliette Lewis) who is carrying the baby of an ultra-rich couple involved in some shady business of their own. But you know there’s more than meets the eye when two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) show up to escort Robin (Lewis) to her would-be routine doctor’s appointment. After the kidnapping, another employee of the wealthy couple (referred to as both “the bagman” and his given name, Joe Sarno) shows up to help out in the negotiating process… and maybe more.
Despite this somewhat long list of central characters, McQuarrie doesn’t let any side story take precedence over the vital action at the story’s core. From the shootout during the initial kidnapping to a gunfight reminiscent of what might have happened had the camera continued to roll after Butch and Sundance busted through the doors, McQuarrie’s tale is one determined to break new ground. It’s evident he wants to say something important about modern-day mentalities, but he never sorts it all the way out.
He does do quite a bit right, though. McQuarrie, whose claim to fame is scripting The Usual Suspects, wisely avoids the cops vs. negotiators angle and keeps the story within his nucleus of characters. Despite a few scenes with dialog aspiring to be Tarantino-esque, the script stays as close to reality as possible for an action flick. It’s also pretty tight and the direction serves it justly without intervening.
McQuarrie also manages his actors fairly well, drawing solid performances out of B-level actors like Phillippe and Caan. Del Toro doesn’t need any help crafting a cold-blooded killer with just enough charm to force you into his corner, and Lewis, as the conflicted surrogate mother, is always a bit annoying but never out of character. As the actors all comment on to some degree in the Blu-ray’s bonus features, it’s much easier to perform when the script is as fine as this.
It’s the message aspect of the film that falls a bit flat. Seemingly unsatisfied with creating “just” another clever crime caper, McQuarrie tries desperately to inject a moral to his story. The dilemma arises when the two kidnappers start to question the fate of their souls after what seems like a few fairly insignificant interactions.
In the film’s final act, the focus shifts to the survival of the baby. Though mentioned throughout, the life of the unborn child becomes an almost derivative factor in every character’s development. They start reassessing their choices, silently pondering the path they’ve followed and the few courses left in front of them. The story doesn’t exactly stall at this point (it never really slows down), but the lofty goal of total originality is tossed out the door as we can immediately see where the dour narrative is going to end up.
One key factor keeping The Way of the Gun from becoming tedious is the intense brutality carefully spread throughout the two hour tale. By the time the final shootout comes about, the audience has been well prepared for the carnage that is about to unfold. Nevertheless, it’s still pretty hard to stomach. If it wasn’t required for a western with Peckinpah-like aspirations, it could be considered too much. Instead, it fits well enough to keep the audience from dwelling too long on the misplaced baby talk.
The film admittedly has flaws, but the sparse bonus features (a commentary track and minute-long cast interviews) on what could have been an interesting exploration of the director’s intentions are the true disappointment of this offering. McQuarrie’s has a little too much fun on the commentary track, choosing to provide production details and odd imagery details that don’t really mesh with a common understanding of the film.
It’s interesting, as it almost always is, to hear the director’s voice describing his choices, but it’s hard to take an artist’s work too seriously when he is practically apologizing for it in his commentary. “It’s my first film and I promise I’ll do better next time” aren’t exactly inspiring words to write a positive review, but I feel there’s enough good work within the written words to warrant one, anyway.