SpanishBenicio Del Toro
The Way of the Gun
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Christopher McQuarrie
Keywords: gangster
Language: English, Spanish [a bit in the Mexican scenes]
Country: USA
Actor: Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Geoffrey Lewis, Dylan Kussman, Scott Wilson, Kristin Lehman, James Caan, Henry Griffin
Format: 119 minutes
Website category: Other
Review date: 19 January 2012
It's deliberately hard to like. McQuarrie's telling a story about "characters who don't go out of their way to ingratiate themselves to you, who aren't traditionally sympathetic." When writing the script, "the first thing I did was to write a list of every taboo, everything I knew a cowardly executive would refuse to accept from a 'sympathetic' leading man". Eventually he realised the insanely violent first ten pages weren't doing his film any good and cut them out, but even so this is not a movie that particularly cares whether or not you're enjoying it. It's going for an old-school Sam Peckinpah vibe, more like the harsh stories they used to tell in 1970s.
I can't say it particularly grabbed me. It's quite well done, but my main reason for watching was the hope that as many as possible of the main characters would end up dead. My wish was granted. A particular highlight came when one of them even got tortured too.
Our heroes... no, wait, our main characters. "Scum" I think is the technical term. Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro are a pair of drifters with experience in killing people, who don't behave like lovers but still go off on extraordinary rants when asked if they're heterosexual at a sperm bank. Their characters' names (Parker and Longbaugh) are the real surnames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the film's climactic shootout at the brothel was done at the location of the final shootout in the 1969 Redford-Newman film. Anyway, at that sperm bank Phillippe and del Toro hear that a woman's being paid a million dollars to be a surrogate mother, so they decide to kidnap her. The bodyguards get involved, people die and soon it becomes clear that the proud father-to-be has scary business associates. The rest of the plot is toppling dominoes.
There are points of interest here. If you care about guns, that side of things is meticulous. There's no magically infinite supply of bullets, except in one scene near the end as a deliberate nod to an essentially silly genre. McQuarrie's brother is a US Navy SEAL and was technical advisor for the action scenes, so people here correctly act in unison, clear rooms and use cover. They observe "trigger discipline", which means keeping your finger off the trigger unless you're ready to shoot someone. Every bullet is accounted for and guns will run out and need reloading. I can't pretend I noticed this at the time or indeed particularly care about it, but there are people who do and at least I admire the fact that they made the effort.
One thing I did notice though was the anti-cool of the characters. This strikes me as brave. The world's full of movies about badass killers, but this lot are being painted as losers. In their first scene, Phillippe and del Toro punch an annoying woman in the mouth and get themselves beaten up. (She was indeed annoying, though. The credits call her "Raving Bitch" and are correct.) Next we see them cruising around the desert being bums and wanking for money. One of the bad guys gets recruited while trying to commit suicide. It's fairly easy to make a movie killer look cool and exciting, but this movie is deliberately choosing not to do so and I think that's a big part of why so many reviewers have dismissed it as worthless. These are professional critics, by the way, not just internet geeks. It's not emotionally involving. You don't care. We tend to associate this kind of movie-going experience with empty action trash and so this too gets dumped into that category, despite being the work of an Oscar-winning writer (McQuarrie) and starring actors of a similar calibre (Benicio del Toro, James Caan).
I see I've started talking about the cast. Ryan Phillippe didn't have a reputation at the time for being in films that you'd want to watch, but he pushed hard to be cast here and has since managed to be in some well-respected movies (Gosford Park, Crash, Flags of our Fathers). I didn't notice him much, to be honest, but he doesn't let himself down. Juliette Lewis is okay, although no more. James Caan is the one you'll remember, partly because he's a grand old warhorse and partly because he's playing the one character here who could be called sympathetic. (This means that despite having blood on his hands, as is true of every man in this movie, he's not obnoxious about it and instead is capable of having a friendly coffee with his enemies and giving them good advice. His chat with del Toro is charming.)
Christopher McQuarrie, for what it's worth, won his Oscar for The Usual Suspects and then (to paraphrase) spent years working under the mistaken assumption that Hollywood gave a rat's arse about this. He wanted some artistic control. This is to date his only film as director and his last screenplay for eight years. Incidentally he went to the same high school (West Windsor-Plainsboro) as Bryan Singer and the two of them have collaborated on four films so far: Public Access, The Usual Suspects, Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Killer (out this year).
Is this film fun? No. It's alienating. Note for instance the shot in which a perfectly normal woman looks like a fish. The film's one laugh for me came when a character jumps into a fountain and lands on lots of broken bottles, which is of course an excruciating thing to happen and so is richly deserved. The men are evil and/or have done terrible things. Juliette Lewis is heavily pregnant and has been kidnapped by gun-toting scum, which you'd think might earn her the audience's sympathies, but I didn't care about her either. I'm not exaggerating when I say that my main interest in the film was in watching the cast get killed, which they're mostly kind enough to do. (Without giving away too many spoilers, by the way, you might be interested in cross-checking the survivors at the end with whether they're a parent and/or child, plus the possible exception.)
I don't like this film. I have no interest in its story or characters and it comes across as stylish but in some ways empty. However I don't dislike it either. It's like this out of choice, not incompetence, and I think it would be a mistake to sneer at it, as did many critics. James Caan's worth your time, at the very least.