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'The Way of the Gun': A Bloody Perfect Aim

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 8, 2000


    'The Way of the Gun' Nicky Katt, Ryan Phillippe and Taye Diggs in "The Way of the Gun." (John Baer/Artisan Entertainment)
Ah, scum. Primordial, vicious, cunning, toothless, treacherous, tattooed, unashamed--how much more interesting they make the world. For us yuppie boomers in our senescent prosperity and for our children, the dot-com millionaires, they have one wonderful message: It can all go away in a hurry. They are the whisper of the ax, the whistle of the bullet, a memento mori for the too-comfortable.

They have their day in the all-scum-all-the-time masterwork "The Way of the Gun," from the dark imagination of the fellow who dreamed up Keyser Sose in "The Usual Suspects." Christopher McQuarrie won the Oscar for that first movie; his follow-up, which he also directed, shows that he's going to be around for a long time and that the first wasn't a fluke.

This film follows two casually nihilistic boneheads called Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro) and Parker (Ryan Phillippe), whose names are stolen from the actual names of the men now known to history as the Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. That's the point: These aren't romantic fellows out on a gentlemanly lark, all beautiful dreams of chivalry and wit. No. They are the real, hideous thing that lurks beneath--goobers with guns.

The movie begins with a screamingly profane, screamingly comical scene in a movie theater parking lot (McQuarrie worked security at a multiplex for four years) where a snide woman goads her boyfriend into beating them up for sitting on the hood of her car. Okay, guess what they do? You'll never. They kick her butt, a darkly comic improvisation that sets the movie's darkly comic, ridiculously bloody tone.

Looking for a gig, the two idiots--who never pretend to be anything but idiots with too much ammo--come up, at a moment's notice, with a scam: They will kidnap the surrogate mother hired by an extremely wealthy but childless and desperate couple. What they can't guess is that the man (Scott Wilson) is in the life, too, but much higher up the crime food chain, and that he'll go not to the cops but to his own bodyguards (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs) to get young pregnant Robin (Juliette Lewis) back. He'll also call in his "facilitator," an old pro named Joe Sarno (James Caan), to supervise the issue.

Can you follow this? I couldn't either, not really. For we're in the noir universe, a betray-o-rama where every seven seconds brings a new lie, deceit, subterfuge, character revelation or hideous moment of violence. So I say to you that if this is not your cup of tea--steeped in slaughter, bone-cracking violence, dark morbidity, and lots of blood--stay far away, and do not call me to complain if you don't. I don't return phone calls anyhow, but I especially won't return those phone calls.

For the rest of us, here's what's good about this film:

McQuarrie has a great skill for the dialect of invective. When these people curse or dis each other, it's like rancid petals of iambic from a mind-poisoned Rimbaud. They rip each other new bodily orifices with the speed of kung fu fighters in a vernacular so toxic it raises the hair on the back of your neck.

He's great at faces. I loved the looks on the mugs of the two professionals--Diggs and Katt--when they are first locked gun-on-gun with Longbaugh and Parker: weirdly intense pleasure, a pleased calm. No twitches, no bug eyes, just intense curiosity undercut with pleasure. This is where they want to be. This is what they trained for. This is their moment, come around at last and, doggone it, they will enjoy it.

Gun handling: I happen to know that McQuarrie's brother is a Navy Seal, and he was on the set telling the guys how to shoot, how to move, how to run the guns fast and efficiently, how to administer a tactical reload, how to reload one-handed when hurt. The movie is an accretion of these little details, some so subtle they don't register, but nevertheless convincing.

The guns themselves: cool. I know they're not supposed to be, not in Bill Clinton's America, but still: cool. There are .45 automatics for the bad-guy heroes, Heckler & Koch submachine guns for the slick bodyguards, old Colt revolvers for Joe Sarno and his boys, plus a scoped Galil assault rifle in .308 for long shots, and pump guns with extended magazines for that close-quarter-battle thing. Remember, you read it here, in The Washington Post, first. If you don't get it, you don't get it.

Action: McQuarrie thinks of new ways to stage vigorous physical activity. The first big sequence--the kidnapping--comes up with something original, a kind of slow-mo car chase, where at any moment the cars slow to a crawl, the shooters debark and meander down long alleyways, trying to gain tactical advantage. The last one, a gun-down so extravagant it has to be seen to be believed, sets all the players in motion against the backdrop of Sam Peckinpah's scabby Mexican village so that it feels like a crowded ride through the blades of a Cuisinart with people shooting at you. And it has this added attraction: birth by Caesarean section in the middle of the battle.

Finally, the fake poetry of tough guys. I love this stuff. It's more beautiful than cowboy poems or Marty Robbins's gunslinger ballads or Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets." Phillippe's Parker narrates in a voice so arch and literary it couldn't possibly belong in the head of a guy who shoots so well. It's wonderfully, beautifully fake, mocking the equally flatulent rhythms of Chandler's Marlowe or Hammett's Spade. All this places it squarely in the tradition of that most blasphemed of genres, the intellectual gangster story, which dates back at least as far as Raoul Walsh's "High Sierra" (Ida Lupino to Bogart's Roy Earle: "Gee Roy, that's poetry") and on through such bleak, black beauties as "The Killers," "Suddenly," "Point Blank," "The Hit," and finally "Reservoir Dogs" and "The Usual Suspects." It's good fun for bad boys.

The Way of the Gun (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extremely disturbing scenes of gun violence.


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