Perhaps the best way to approach the directorial debut of writer Christopher McQuarrie is to take it as a homage to Sam Peckinpah’s bloody flicks about “bad” guys who nonetheless live up to a rugged set of principles in a world even more ruthless than they are (see, for example, “The Wild Bunch”). Indeed, the mythic aspirations of the piece are pretty clearly announced by its self-important title. Of course, in today’s Tarantino-dominated movie world such a tale can’t be told without a heavy lacing of irony and cynicism; so McQuarrie supplies that, too. The result is an odd mingling of the old and the no-longer-quite-so-new, a picture that shows flashes of wit but as a whole doesn’t hang together, ending up curiously stale.
“The Way of the Gun” hinges on the kidnapping of Robin, a pregnant young surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis), by a pair of intense but not-very-bright toughs (Parker, played by a buff Ryan Philippe, and Longbaugh, essayed by the more whimsical Benicio Del Toro). Their plan is to demand a substantial ransom from the wealthy prospective father. But though they succeed, after some difficulty, in snatching her from a couple of hard-boiled security men (Jeffers, played suavely by Taye Diggs, and the less lucky Obecks, limned by Nicky Katt), their plot goes awry because the dad-to-be is Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), a front man for mob money-laundering operations. Instead of paying up (an act which would doom him with his employers, we’re told), Chidduck dispatches his fixer Joe Sarno (James Caan) to deal with the situation; and Joe enlists a small army of similarly-aging cronies to handle things, most notably the sad-faced Abner (Geoffrey Lewis). Also involved are Robin’s physician, Dr. Painter (Dylan Kussman), from whose office the girl is abducted, and Chidduck’s trophy wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman), who’s obviously jealous of Robin.
As one would expect from the fellow who fashioned “The Usual Suspects,” the picture’s plot grows increasingly intricate, with all sorts of complications, convolutions and revelations tumbling over each other on the way to a supposedly startling denouement. But as a director McQuarrie is overly in love with his writing, so that while he tries to keep the level of excitement high, he also never hesitates to halt the forward motion to allow characters (especially Caan’s) to offer a soulful soliloquy or a pithy epigram. (This is very much Tarantino territory, as is a really gruesome torture sequence which, happily, doesn’t go on quite so long as its obvious inspiration in “Reservoir Dogs”–but McQuarrie doesn’t pull it off nearly as well.) The upshot is that the picture, which ought to hurtle along breathlessly, moves in fits and starts, allowing the seams in the narrative to show and its dependence on silly coincidences to become all too apparent. If “The Usual Suspects,” as choreographed by the far more skillful Bryan Singer, was like a perfect puzzle, “The Way of the Gun” resembles one whose pieces don’t quite fit (and, at the end, you’ll probably feel that a few are missing, too). The neophyte director’s limitations are demonstrated to their utmost in the big climax, where his staging of a prolonged gunfight is so slack and sloppy that the topography of the battlefield is entirely unclear and the participants are situated in a completely arbitrary fashion. Things aren’t helped by a score by Joe Kraemer which periodically swells portentiously for no apparent reason and lays on pounding kettledrums whenever it runs out of real musical ideas.
The cast, however, seems to be enjoying the overwrought action, the many opportunities for posturing, and the self-consciously clever dialogue. Philippe poses and agonizes with gusto as a pretty-boy thug, and Del Toro, who’s been down this road before (he played an inept car thief-turned-accidental-kidnapper whose crime got him in dutch with a mob hitman in 1997’s abysmal comedy “Excess Baggage”), remains quirkily likable. Lewis gives the material all she’s got as Robin, groaning, sweating and bleeding while exhibiting a spunky streak; and Caan, grimacing in pain with apparently every move, clearly savors playing a broken-down but still dangerous wiseguy with an introspective side. Diggs and Katt are the very models of sleek automatons as Robin’s coldhearted bodyguards. But when all is said and done, everybody is playing not characters but a writer’s conventions, and only two of the cast overcome the limitations of such material. One is Kussman, who, unlike the others, manages to be honestly affecting as the doctor whose concern for his patient has several hidden motives; the other is Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette’s father), who makes over-the-hill Abner curiously endearing. Lewis is aided by having two of McQuarrie’s most cleverly written scenes–the first, early on, when, in solitary discouragement, he plays a peculiar game of Russian roulette, and the other when he has a last conversation with Caan–and the old pro puts his hangdog expression to expert use in socking them across.
There’s one great running gag in “The Way of the Gun”: the cell phones ubiquitous in today’s society persistently refuse to work properly, leaving their users griping about their unreliability. But it’s telling that when the mechanics of the story demand it, the devices suddenly do function, allowing for conversations without which the plot couldn’t proceed. The phones, and their arbitrary effectiveness, are somehow characteristic of a picture that has lots of flash and dazzle in the writing and performances, but, in the end, doesn’t connect very often either.