“The Usual Suspects” scribe Christopher McQuarrie’s “The Way of the Gun” failed to catch on during its 2000 release. More than a decade later, little has changed, as the film has reached the edges of cult admiration yet remains generally unacknowledged, a work with admired elements and scenes that barely registers on the movie landscape as a whole.
It’s just a hunch, but I blame the film’s thematic bleakness for its dearth of recognition. McQuarrie’s vision, part neo-Western, part crime-caper, part philosophical talkie, lacks the joy of a Quentin Tarantino film. In fact, this has often been dismissed as one of the many “Pulp Fiction” wannabes. In truth, “The Way of the Gun” owes much more to Sam Peckinpah; the linear narrative, dusty settings, grotesque action scenes, and fatalistic gun slinging anti-heroes all staples of Sam’s Westerns. Even McQuarrie’s dialogue, talky and postmodern, revolves not around pop culture and social mores, but ruminations on the world’s brutality and indifference. These characters, whether by choice or design, are the damned, and they’re trying to make the best of it. At its heart, this story is about accepting one’s fate, no matter how unfortunate it might be.
Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro star as Parker and Longbaugh, whose self-applied names broadcast their disposition and fates. Accordingly, Parker informs the audience through narration that the two consider their criminality a rebellion against the “natural order.” The pair set in motion an inevitable bloodbath when they kidnap the very pregnant surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) of a gangster’s wife, the sort of scheme even the planners know can’t work, but the slim possibility of riches proves too enticing to pass up.
An excellent supporting cast, including James Caan as the duo’s chief adversary, lights up McQuarrie’s dialogue and keeps the somewhat uneventful middle buzzing with interest. Aside from a shockingly funny opening scene featuring Sarah Silverman, there’s little humor or levity, the litany of characters going about their business with a professional level of commitment to the morbid result. “They don’t care about dying, just losing,” Lewis’ character warns our anti-heroes, a line that defines nearly everyone in play.
The story culminates in one of cinema’s finest shootouts, a wild, sustained burst of searing lead between our heroes and a dozen or so gangsters in the courtyard of a Mexican brothel. Freshman director McQuarrie demonstrates a mastery of the onscreen gunfight, stylishly merging its thunderous racket, grotesque injuries, environmental destruction, and even the irritating suspense of reloading in a scene that bests the centerpiece of Michael Mann’s “Heat.” Sadly, this sort of action craftsmanship has since been overtaken by the shaky-cam boom, which has convinced many filmmakers that they have been relieved of the obligation to make their exciting moments coherent and visually appealing.
Keeping consistent with the bleak promise of Parker’s opening monologue, McQuarrie allows none of his characters a pass, even those who survive. Whereas Peckinpah’s characters often found twisted salvation in a hail of gunfire, Parker and Longbaugh are afforded no solace except knowing they went down shooting. The film’s nihilism might not have made “The Way of the Gun” an easy pill for many viewers to swallow, but it makes certain that this remains a harsh, intelligent work that, unlike its characters, deserves better than it got.
“The Way of the Gun” is available for streaming via Amazon Instant Video (free for Prime Members) and Netflix. Christopher McQuarrie’s latest directorial effort, “One Shot,” will be released December 21, where it will shortly thereafter compete with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”