' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Way of the Gun

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Some Drivel On...Way of the Gun

Released in September 2000 before the New Millennium, even if people had already celebrated it nine months prior, and so still sort of a part of the decade that spawned Tarantino and rampant Tarantino knockoffs, it was and might still be tempting to lump Christopher McQuarrie’s “Way of the Gun” in with so much “Things to Do in Denver While Your Dead”-ish drivel. It’s twisty, violent, and extremely conversational. If it’s also provocative, McQuarrie seems to be thinking about what he’s trying to provoke, even if he is not entirely successful in seeing it through, and in his directorial debut he already understands that our elders are people too, a secret Q.T. didn’t stumble into until “Jackie Brown.” Indeed, if “Way of the Gun” opens by featuring then 26-year-old Ryan Phillippe and 33-year-old Benicio del Toro, eventually it dovetails with and then almost ineffably hands the story off to then 60-year-old James Caan, his indelible turn transforming what is otherwise a manifestation of a loudmouthed youthful kick in the pants into one of how The Old Guy’s Still Got It. 

Phillippe and del Toro are, respectively, Parker and Longbaugh, which are the real names of Butch and Sundance, signifying how McQuarrie puts the idea of heroes under the microscope, or maybe more accurately, puts the idea of heroes under his steel-toed boot and smashes them...at least up to a point. That’s why we are introduced to the pair by way of a nightclub parking lot brawl in which Parker punches a woman in the face, establishing them not merely as anti-heroes but something worse. (The woman is played by Sarah Silverman, so ferociously, charismatically foul-mouthed that she briefly seems to interrupt the cinematic time-continuum, the scene literally just stopping in the middle of itself for a quick second to behold her.) They cross the line even further when they kidnap Robin (Juliette Lewis), the pregnant surrogate of Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and his trophy wife (Kristin Lehman), intending to hold her for ransom. This engenders more complications than they expect as the bodyguards, Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt), appointed to Robin by Chidduck, Robin’s Doctor (Dylan Kussman), and bagman Joe Sarno (Caan) all enter the mix with motives of their own.

But if “Way of the Gun” is principally a knotty thriller, it is also proves a part-time action movie as McQuarrie is already demonstrating some of the outside the box thinking that likely led to his creative, fabulous “Mission: Impossible” movies. The initial kidnapping going wrong demonstrates a penchant for real-time dramatic cum comic reversals and an early car chase is less a car chase than a uniquely slow-moving tactical game of chicken. Then again, both these moments also evoke the inadvertent contradictions that McQuarrie builds into Parker and Longbaugh, two impetuous dudes who don’t do their kidnapping homework and then can’t keep the kidnapping on track but also have smarts and methods beyond your typical born to lose yahoos. What’s more, if Parker gets a literal line about not wanting to be redeemed, his mid-movie monologue about getting right with God suggests otherwise, though this fascinating disconnect never gets squared by movie’s end. The laconic cool of de Toro, meanwhile, evinces a a laid back anarchist in philosophy, or something, someone who has given thought to his criminal thoughtlessness, which seems both to not jibe with some of his character’s actions if simultaneously also propping those actions up. 

If McQuarrie’s perspective on Longbaugh and Parker is inconsistent, he never quite sees Robin at all, more content to utilize her as a dramatic device in the ever-evolving stakes. This is just as true of Jeffers and Obecks, the former’s hidden ulterior motives revealed in a sequence that feels more A Ha! than true to the emotion it is meant to impart. At the same time, Diggs and Katt, not unlike Phillippe, can’t always turn the Mamet-ish tough guy talk into the hardboiled poetry that McQuarrie intends. This is laid bare best in the scene in the police station where Joe Sarno comes to see about springing Jeffers and Obecks. If on the surface this scene is about Sarno letting them know he’s not a fan of their work, underneath it’s about Caan inadvertently exposing the guy of gravelly authenticity his co-stars lack.

Caan, after all, perfected a certain sort of hothead in movies like “The Godfather” and “The Gambler,” using that specific brand of heat to inform his role as Sarno. He’s not a reformed hothead, exactly, more like a hothead who’s cooled off. He deploys that same staccato, considered rhythm to his dialogue that he did in “Thief” but adjusts it, so that lines like “Fifteen million dollars is not money – it’s a motive with a universal adaptor on it” don’t come across overwritten but as the wisdom of years. In his scene with del Toro over coffee, he evokes the air of a career criminal life coach. He gets another good line, one about being broken down but a survivor, but doesn’t need it because he just acts it, over and over, never more than after vanquishing his young rivals (22-year spoiler alert) and sits down for a cigarette, triumph muted by all the wear and tear. He’s so good in that moment he transcends the Coca-Cola® product placement.

He’s even better in an earlier scene in the front seat of a car where his suicidal associate Abner (Geoffrey Lewis), having taken a bullet, is slowly dying. That the moment mocks so many movie death scenes is not just in how Abner’s verbal rambling born of a body shutting down never quite leads to some significant revelation but in how reverentially Caan treats the moment as his character figuratively holds Abner’s head. Dying in a movie means so little anymore; Caan’s grimace ensures this death counts. 

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