The Way of the Gun (2000)

D: Christopher McQuarrie
S: Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe

Gun-toting outlaws heading south of the border with a kidnapped woman in tow. Aged gunslingers in hot pursuit in the pay of a rich and powerful family. Younger, hungrier killers also part of the posse but have sinister motivations of their own. Bright, dry deserts populated by sun-blanched haciendas and at least one filthy brothel packed with swarthy, buxom Mexican girls and a grasping, moustachioed owner. A final shoot out which takes place in the bright sunshine amid the shadowy arches of the brothel and around the dried-out fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Ah, the classic western.

Then there's the pervading air of doom and predestination provided by the voice over narration. We are introduced to our two disreputable heroes (Benicio Del Toro (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and Ryan Phillippe (Cruel Intentions)) picking a fight with an angry mob for no obvious reason, only to lie laughing and groaning as the crowd disperses. We are told by our narrator that these are characters who quickly realised that fate had nothing but misery in store for them, and so they have embarked on a life of petty crime and ultra-violence to thumb their noses at destiny. At the final showdown the two exchange knowing quips about their chances of facing down the posse in pursuit of them like Butch and Sundance, but they play it out like The Wild Bunch in a bloody orgy of death, the result of which is known from the outset. So the ghost of Sam Peckinpah is still abroad, and not a sign of Walter Hill in the credits.

But wait, you haven't heard the funny bit yet. The film is set in the present day. The weapons are up to date, the posse wear suits and jackets as befits their station and the outlaws drive cars instead of riding horses. The codes of the western are certainly there, and the references to the style, tone, and structure of latter-day entries in the genre are quite deliberate (down to the derivative but effective score).Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Usual Suspects) has done a neat job of grafting familiar iconographical and thematic references onto a story which surprisingly does retain its contemporaneity without artificiality. This alone makes it a film worth seeing, especially for film buffs. It is also simply a cracking thriller with terrific, hard-hitting action scenes and a real sense of the amorality of violence that will probably appeal to a general audience.

For a directorial debut, The Way of the Gun is remarkably accomplished. Though its central conceits and thematic threads are generic (natch), McQuarrie's script is as tricky and intricate as the one for The Usual Suspects. It introduces a wide range of vivid characters. Though they may be drawn from genre archetypes, each pursues an agenda of their own in the course of the narrative which eventually serves both plot and theme. Even minor characters such as the billionaire mobster played by Scott Wilson and his wife played by Kristin Lehman hold interest. Primarily we are concerned with Del Toro and Phillippe, of course, and though they don't develop much in the course of the narrative, we have been told that such a thing is not in question. The trajectory towards a kind of redemption is, naturally, and we are told with a self-depreciating final summation on the voice over "isn't that always the way?" Other primary characters include Juliet Lewis' (Natural Born Killers) surrogate mother, carrying the child of Wilson and Lehman which was what attracted the interest of the outlaws in the first place. Dylan Kussman throws in his lot as a doctor with a shady past (another genre staple), Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt make a great pair of ruthless young bodyguards who are contrasted with the veteran guns played by James Caan and Geoffrey Lewis.

As director, McQuarrie keeps control of the multiplicity of narrative and character threads which run through the action by making sure that each scene, sequence, and moment is solidly crafted and makes its point without showiness or Tarantinoseque visual acrobatics. The cutting rhythm is steady and patient and the movie moves towards its inevitable finale with a measured pace which suits it well. British cinematographer Dick Pope (best known for work with Mike Leigh) helps to provide the film with its distinctive 'washed-out' look which McQuarrie explains is intended to call to mind the classic Bad Day at Black Rock.

No it doesn't have the grandeur of The Wild Bunch and yes it is still a collection of clichés wrapped in crusty clothing but it works. The Way of the Gun draws you into its world and leaves a sense of itself which exceeds the ephemeral thrills of the hi-octane flick. Its nihilism may be ironic and postmodern and its clichés may raise the odd unintended chuckle, but it is a strong film which manages to be clever without being smarmy and refuses the kind of snigger-up-the-sleeve ending which marred The Usual Suspects. It is well worth seeing and should provide rewards for a wide spectrum of viewers. Be warned that it is pretty violent though and more up close and personal about it than most genre fans will be used to.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.