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Wednesday, June 13, 2001
Hard-boiled blunderland and the end of the world
One elderly crime lord looks at his right-hand man and asks, "Do you believe in karma, Joe?" The tough old hit man ponders it for a second, then replies: "Karma is only justice without satisfaction."
This little nugget of hard-boiled wisdom comes from "The Way of the Gun," the directorial debut of screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. Actually, though, he didn't get it quite right: Karma is more a matter of allowing one's present and future to be dictated by past actions and ingrained tendencies.
Judging from this film, it sure seems like McQuarrie has become a prisoner of his karma. After landing an Oscar in 1995 for Best Original Screenplay with his clever, sucker-punch script for "The Usual Suspects" -- arguably the best of the post-Tarantino deluge of talky crime-suspense flicks -- McQuarrie pitched any number of new projects but failed to get anything off the ground. The studios all wanted more of the same, and eventually McQuarrie caved in and gave them what they wanted with "The Way of the Gun."
You know the routine: Two not-too-bright, hard-luck professional criminals -- Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) and Parker (Ryan Phillippe) -- come up with a get-rich scheme that takes big balls but few smarts. On impulse, they decide to kidnap a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) who's being paid a lot of money -- and being virtually held in captivity -- to birth a child for a very rich man named Chidduck (Scott Wilson).
It turns out that Chidduck is connected with the mob, and our two antiheroes get in way over their heads. They flee to Mexico (how original) and are pursued by two groups of heavies: Chidduck's personal security team, the impersonal and suited Jeffers and Obecks (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt); and a posse of geriatric mafiosi led by Joe Sarno (James Caan). Nobody trusts anyone, and there are several hidden agendas that come into play. Needless to say, it all ends in a massive, apocalyptic shootout on a dilapidated whorehouse hacienda, kind of like what would have happened to Butch and Sundance if Sam Peckinpah had been directing.
McQuarrie does enough things right to recommend "The Way of the Gun" to fans of this genre, especially those who like their shootouts played straight and lethal. The initial kidnap sequence, which is hopelessly bungled by Parker and Longbaugh, is handled with delicious tension building to a sudden eruption of carnage. Particularly effective is a cat-and-mouse car chase rolling down narrow alleys, which shows that stealth can be as important as speed. Del Toro and Phillippe, meanwhile, bring a live-wire bravado to their roles that gives them more personality than the script ever does.
McQuarrie's bad karma has him burning incense at the altar of Tarantino. Sure enough, you've got gangsters who yap as much as they shoot, the requisite gnarly torture scene and the mandatory anti-PC jibe (in this case, a woman gets slugged in the face). You've also got the fan-boy Hong Kong movie nod: McQuarrie one-ups John Woo's famed shootout in a maternity ward (in "Hard-Boiled") by including a shootout during a Caesarean-section delivery.
Surprisingly, McQuarrie's weakest point is his script. The film's mess of hidden loyalties never develops into anything coherent or surprising (as in "Usual Suspects"). It seems more like the usual attention-deficit-disorder Hollywood approach to suspense, where if you toss enough red herrings a few are bound to stick.
More egregious is the dialogue, which never has the ring of the street; it sounds all too much like an English major's imagined version of it. What kind of security gunman actually says something like "Creative articulation, my good man!" Any character from "Goodfellas" would have whacked him on the spot.
McQuarrie's aim seems to have been to create a post-Tarantino film minus the irony, with content violent enough to actually shock an audience seeking entertainment -- the Peckinpah approach, as it were. Sad to say, that approach may no longer work in this day and age. The violence here seems about par for the course with this sort of film, while the thin characterizations and pulp-fiction setting don't allow for any real emotional impact.
So, class, postmodernist pastiche minus irony equals . . . ? Correct, a B-movie.