Ah, the guilty pleasure movie. The movie that should be too dumb to live, and yet here and there it glimmers with a hint of what might have been. Sometimes, the guilty pleasure makes you mad — the moments, the “It has its moments” moments, are so delectable that it throws into even sharper contrast how godawful the rest of it is.
And such is the case with The Way of the Gun, the directorial debut of Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote one of the most perfect movies ever made, The Usual Suspects. McQuarrie wrote this one, too, but there’s only a hint of the brilliance of his earlier work here. And he was, perhaps, not quite ready yet to move on to directing, either.
Parker and Longbaugh are the world’s dumbest criminals… and right here the trouble starts. For it is the vacuous Ryan Phillippe (Antitrust, 54) who shuffles his way through Way as Parker, while the minor god Benicio Del Toro (The Pledge, Traffic) inhabits Longbaugh. Way is a thesis in the importance of proper casting, and the difference between an intelligent actor playing a stupid character and, well, a less intelligent actor playing stupid. There isn’t a single likable character to be found here, which may or may not have been part of the plan, but Del Toro at least unfailingly intriguing, exuding a diffuse danger even as we can see that Longbaugh’s brain is having a little trouble keeping up with rapidly moving events. Phillippe, on the other hand, is laughably unbelievable as a tough guy, which may also have been the intention, though I doubt it — he’s such a featherweight that hearing him nasally intone such nuggets of felonious wisdom as “You can’t trust a bagman” may prompt you to laugh, or cry, or both.
So: dumb criminals. In front of an attentive audience, these geniuses attempt to kidnap Robin (Juliette Lewis: Christmas Vacation), who is very pregnant with a baby she is hosting for superrich bastard Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson: Shiloh 2: Shiloh Season, Clay Pigeons) and his self-involved wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman: Dog Park). After numerous mishaps and an exchange of fire with Robin’s bodyguards (Taye Diggs: Go and Nicky Katt: Boiler Room, The Limey), they’ve got Robin… and now have no idea what to do with her. They don’t even make a ransom demand right away — they just drive around the southwestern desert, ending up in a cheap motel Mexico.
Things devolve rapidly, the story making less and less sense as it goes, for two reasons: scriptwriter McQuarrie doesn’t seem to know what to do with his juicy setup, and director McQuarrie doesn’t seem to know how to shoot what little story is there… though not always. Way‘s numerous bloody shootouts put your typical Paul Verhoeven action sequence to shame, from confusing blocking to ammo expended to innocent bystanders dispatched to the hereafter. This may be an attempt to outsatirize Tarantino, but it’s hard to tell — action movies so often parody themselves unintentionally that it’s getting difficult to tell when an exchange of gunfire is being played straight or for laughs.
And yet… there’s an ingenious slow-speed chase through alleyways that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. There’re some clever moments depicting the various ways to reload your guns while mortally wounded and unable to utilize much of your body. There’s a new way to play Russian roulette. And there are some fabulous character moments, all of them involving Del Toro or James Caan (Mickey Blue Eyes, This Is My Father) as bagman Joe… and sometimes both of them. In a few brief scenes, Del Toro and Caan create a respectful simpatico between professional colleagues — their short conversation on the poseurs of the criminal class is a little bit of genius. Del Toro’s Longbaugh telling Robin that her making him feel her pregnant belly is “creepy” is priceless.
But there aren’t enough of those moments. After your first viewing of The Way of the Gun, you’ll be fast-forwarding to them, and loving them, but best to let the rest be forgotten.