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The Way of the Gun   C

Artisan Entertainment

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, Juliette Lewis, James Caan, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Scott Wilson.

Review by Rob Vaux

The Way of the Gun can be summed up with a single word. Close your eyes and say it with me now:

"Tarantinoesque."

It's a scary word, referring to a short glut of derivative films which appeared in the wake of Quentin Tarantino's landmark Pulp Fiction. Pop-culture postmodernism blending with gratuitous violence. Characters too clever for their supposed professions. Byzantine plot twists disguising a self-referential narrative. And guns. Lots and lots of guns. While Tarantino himself pulled this mixture off with brazen artistry, his imitators usually lacked the talent (or chutzpah) to follow in his footsteps. One would have thought that the trend died out a long time ago, but now comes The Way of the Gun to remind us how uninspiring Tarantinoesque can be.

It's doubly disappointing considering the director: Chris McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for penning another modern classic, The Usual Suspects. With that kind of pedigree, it's only natural that he would stick to form for his debut behind the camera. The Way of the Gun spins yet another complicated story of crime and betrayal, centering on two aimless drifters (Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe) who hatch a scheme to kidnap the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) in the care of a rich Southwestern businessman (Scott Wilson). Unfortunately for them, said businessman also happens to be a launderer for the Mafia, and doesn't take kindly to two-bit thugs looking for a shakedown. He sends out the girl's two bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) -- who failed to prevent the kidnapping -- along with a grizzled old bagman (James Caan) who knows more about the situation as he's telling. All of them have their own reasons for resolving the situation, but none of them knows entirely what's going on...and the kidnappers are craftier than they think.

The elements are very familiar, and credit McQuarrie for keeping things moderately interesting. The expected gunfights contain a certain amount of pep (especially the kidnapping sequence) and the script provides plenty of clever lines for the characters to utter. Unfortunately, it lacks a certain spark, a liveliness that makes the exercise worthwhile. The plot is very complicated, but never gives us a reason to pay attention to its twists and turns. We should care about these characters, or at least have a rooting interest in how their tale comes out. Instead, they're just elements that make the plot run, all coils and springs with no real humanity. The script often stumbles against its own cleverness, preferring esoteric philosophizing to believable personae. It's tough to believe that someone like Caan's character would use words like "druthers", but he does. Quite often. Such inconsistencies work to the film's detriment.

It also likes to refer to earlier films, a habit it picked up from Pulp Fiction. Unfortunately, it never does anything except refer to them, and the riffs -- even the good ones -- seem more like rip-off than homages: the gun battle from The Wild Bunch, the coffee-shop truce from Heat, the sniper from The Usual Suspects. Even the drifters' names are lifted -- with a great amount of wink-wink, nudge-nudge -- from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. None of it feels fresh, and it serves little purpose other than to distract us from the things we should be paying attention to. You find yourself longing for those older, better films, rather than enjoying this one.

Certainly, The Way of the Gun has a passive watchability (although it's very violent, and includes some disturbing scenes of pregnant women in peril), but it never does anything new or different with its material. McQuarrie's talent is unquestionable, and he might have a future as a director, but he needs to find a more tangible vision than the one he exhibits here. Action fans looking for a fix may find The Way of the Gun palatable, but don't be surprised if it leaves you unfulfilled. Tarantinoesque can never quite compare with the real thing.

Review published 09.15.2000.

* * *

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