(director/writer: Christopher McQuarrie; cinematographer: Dick Pope; editor: Stephen Semel; cast: Ryan Phillippe (Parker), Benicio Del Toro (Longbaugh), Juliette Lewis (Robin), Taye Diggs (Jeffers), Nicky Katt (Obecks), Scott Wilson (Hale Chidduck), James Caan (Joe Sarno), Kristin Lehmann (Francesca Chidduck), Geoffrey Lewis (Abner), Dylan Kussman (Dr. Allen Painter); Runtime: 118; Artisan Entertainment; 2000)

“Pleasing in the most superficial of ways.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A modern noir film that romanticizes violence while supposedly parodying it, with the film looking too much, at times, like a Tarantino-clone. But there are some scenes that are fresh and invigorating, filled with a deadly explosiveness. But, somehow, the film overall fails to put it all together to get at what it is trying to unearth from all the gunplay.

The opening scene is a good case in point at how brilliant but misguided the film’s direction was: two thugs are seated on a couples’ car while they are standing on line at a nightclub; and, when cursed out in a really foul language by the vulgar woman whose car it is, a mindless fight takes place where the woman gets punched out by one of the thugs and then the thugs get beaten up by the angry crowd. It looked at that point, that the film would be very energetic since that scene was so powerful and so crass — and so original. But the filmmaker fell in love with the violence and couldn’t control his bad impulses to do the entire film as an exercise in mindless behavior.

The film is armed with a highly polished script, lots of arty gunfights, and a convoluted, labyrinth story line, more interested in double-crosses and twists in the plot than in exploring human feelings and in character development. If you like gunplay done as choreography as in recent Hong Kong action films, then you could like this one.

A shapeless story and an unmoving character portrayal of its anti-heroes hinder the production of “The Way of the Gun.” Director-writer Christopher McQuarrie, who won an Academy Award for his unusual script in the overrated “The Usual Suspects,” has come up with a reasonably intricate script for his debut as a director.

Two crazed kidnappers brandishing guns enter the obstetrician’s office of Dr. Painter (Dylan). They are the scruffy bearded Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and the placid psychopath Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro). Parker does the voiceover explaining his amoral actions as something he can’t help doing and expects no mercy from God. Parker and Longbaugh are the real-life surnames of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their escapade as career criminals is explained by Parker: “It was either a minimum wage job or life as a petty criminal.”

Parker and Longbaugh kidnap a pregnant surrogate mother, Robin (Juliette Lewis), in the doctor’s office, who is to receive $1 million for her services. She is heavily guarded during her pregnancy at the request of the surrogate parents. In a bloody shoot-out between her conniving bodyguards, Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt), and the duo of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, she ends up being taken by the thugs and held for ransom. She is having the child for a wealthy couple, whose wife (Kristin Lehmann) can give birth but doesn’t want to go through the trouble of having a child. Mr. Chidduck (Scott Wilson) is the ruthless tycoon with the mob connections — he launders their money through his legitimate business interests.

Chidduck’s faced with the daunting problem of trying to get back his prospective son alive without being allowed to pay the ransom, because the money can be traced to the mob and he doesn’t have their permission to pay the ransom.

To the rescue comes help from his bagman, someone who is the mob’s enforcer, the old-timer Joe Sarno (James Caan), and his henchman Abner (Geoffrey Lewis), who was playing Russian roulette before Joe called for his help. Joe is an adjudicator, which is what he calls himself to show off his polysyllabic profundity.

All the characters are born liars and self-deceivers, the only innocent one is the expected child. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have any touching moments to fall back on and there is no one worth caring about, so in the midst of all the violence it is fair to ask — What is it all about?

The story hits a dry spell when the gunmen flee across the Mexican border and wait to collect their ransom knowing that the bagman is coming after them, which he does in a final shoot-out in a Mexican whorehouse. The violence and plot twists, offer no big surprises. In fact, it almost seems like hundreds of other “B” films. The film is astounding, only in the sight onscreen of the dead bodies as they pile up.

James Caan was great to watch … his role took him in and out of the film, as it didn’t seem to matter what lines he was spouting. He could have been doing the script to another film it wouldn’t have mattered, he still was the film’s main source of charisma even if he was cast in a supporting role. I was amused with his definition of karma, saying karma is just a belief in justice where you don’t even get the pleasure of seeing justice in your lifetime. It’s an inaccurate usage of karma, but it was one spot in the film that made you think. When Caan was onscreen, he took over the film and seemed to be the surrogate star.

But basically this is the type of film that gives ammunition to those who are bashing Hollywood for its exploitative tendencies to sell violence. Juliette Lewis is a bloody mess while having a baby that all the characters pretend to have an interest in, even the fatalistic Parker becomes concerned about the baby. But while she is having an excruciatingly painful delivery, one of the film’s many shoot-outs is taking place in the same area. It seemed the film was more interested in the shoot-outs than in anything else.

The film was pleasing in the most superficial of ways, but without offering anything to say about the inner workings of the two thugs who are the centerpiece of the film. The camerawork was superb, and even though the gunplay was phony it filled the screen with diverting stylized action scenes. The film could be viewed as a guilty pleasure. It got the graphic violence down pat for a few thrills, and it showed that violence is so pervasive in society that even a woman is not immune from getting punched in the nose. I guess that goes for equality in this film! What the film doesn’t do, is go beyond exploiting this nihilistic viewpoint.

The Way of the Gun Poster