Christopher McQuarrie’s Way of the Gun is a hard movie to take. Not hard because it’s a bad movie — in the sense that “bad” movies are unwatchable — but because its subject matter and execution is not for the squeamish and easily distracted. Written and directed by McQuarrie, Way of the Gun was McQuarrie’s answer to all the suits that kept demanding he churn out another “crime thriller” in the vein of the Oscar winning The Usual Suspects, for which McQuarrie won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. In interviews past, McQuarrie has declared, “after this movie, no one will ever ask me to do another crime thriller again!”
Way of the Gun stars Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe as two small-time criminals with an arsenal of weapons who goes by the aliases of Longbaugh and Parker, two men with the balls to take on the world just for the heck of it. During a trip to the local semen center to donate some sperm in return for much-needed cash, Longbaugh and Parker stumbles onto a plan to kidnap a woman (Juliette Lewis) carrying the child of a wealthy couple in return for a hefty ransom (for the baby’s return). Much to Longbaugh and Parker’s surprise, the couple turns out to be mob-connected, and soon the mob has sent their top enforcer, Joe Sarno (James Caan), to deal with the problem. With their backs against the wall and a small army of mob gunmen after them, Longbaugh and Parker flees to Mexico to prepare for a final, bloody standoff. For these two guys, it’s either all or dead.
There is a scene late in Way of the Gun that will make you squirm in your seat. For those with a weak stomach, it might make you run to the bathroom. The scene involves a pregnant woman on a motel bed giving birth, but not the way you’re used to seeing women in movies give birth. The woman, you see, is having trouble with the pregnancy, and in order to save the baby — the source of much misery and pursuit in the film — a doctor has to cut into her and manually remove the baby from her stomach. It’s bloody, it’s gross as hell, and is sickening to watch. Because you must watch it, for the simple reason that McQuarrie refuses to allow you not to watch. That is what I mean when I say Way of the Gun is a hard movie to take.
What the above points out is that Way of the Gun is not your average movie. It’s bloody in so many ways and people are shot from close range, from long range, and from middle range. The final shootout between Longbaugh and Parker versus Sarno and the mob soldiers is one of the best gunfights in recorded history. There is so much blood, bullets, discharging weapons, and bullet-riddled bodies in that 20-minute long gunfight that the viewer will leave Way of the Gun feeling as if they’ve been punched repeatedly in the face and gut.
That isn’t to say McQuarrie’s screenplay is perfect, because it’s not. The screenplay is needlessly convoluted in many places, most notably in scenes involving the mob-connected would-be parents. There is also a sidebar involving Sarno and an old has-been mob soldier who is called back into service despite the fact that all he wants to do is eat a bullet. The screenplay’s biggest problem is that it lingers on the motives of almost every single side character. Not a big deal in and of itself, but for the fact that the side characters are often not very interesting, and hence knowing their reasons for doing this or that seems like an exercise in futility rather than effective movie plotting.
The acting by the leads is superb. James Caan plays the old and tired mob enforcer perfectly. He’s cool and calm and smart, and as soon as Sarno enters the picture we know Longbaugh and Parker are in big trouble. McQuarrie’s script works best when it focuses on Sarno and his combative interaction with the couple’s two young bodyguards and later, Sarno’s burgeoning relationship with Benicio Del Toro’s Longbaugh. McQuarrie directs the two men’s character as similar men from different eras. The younger Longbaugh clearly worships Sarno’s skills, and Sarno can see his younger self in Longbaugh. The two men’s mutual respect for each other is responsible for the movie’s best “quiet” scenes, but through it all you never forget that both men are willing to shoot the other at the drop of a hat.
McQuarrie directs Way of the Gun like a man trying to get rid of a barn full of fake blood and bullets. The movie is rife with bloody shootouts that end with multiple people dead. The ending gunfight alone must have notched a bodycount of about 30, perhaps more. By the time the film is over, you realize you haven’t taken a breath since the finale gunfight began.
Way of the Gun, like so many crime films with a fair amount of talking heads that has come in the last 10 years, has been accused of “copying Tarantino,” as if no other crime film had ever been made before the “coming” of Quentin Tarantino and his mouthy (but completely unreal) “criminal” characters. Way of the Gun shows that McQuarrie is leaps and bounds a better crime writer than Tarantino will ever be.
With Way of the Gun McQuarrie has fashioned a brutal, honest, and exciting film. If it was McQuarrie’s intention to “give the suits what they want” so they won’t ask him for another film like this, then his plan might have backfired. If Way of the Gun proves anything, it’s that Christopher McQuarrie is more talented at writing and directing in-your-face crime films than anyone working today. Tarantino could take lessons because God knows the man has as much “real sense” writing “real criminals” as Mickey Mouse.
Christopher McQuarrie (director) / Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay)
CAST: James Caan …. Joe Sarno
Benicio Del Toro …. Longbaugh
Taye Diggs …. Jeffers
Nicky Katt …. Obecks
Dylan Kussman …. Dr. Allen Painter
Ryan Phillippe …. Parker