Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) are a couple of luckless criminals drifting cross-country in search of their big score. Convinced they’ll land a big ransom, the gun-toting duo kidnap Robin (Juliette Lewis), a surrogate mother bearing a child for millionaire Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and his young trophy wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman). However, the pair quickly realise they’re in way over their heads. Chidduck is a front man for the mob and hires veteran bagman Joe Sarno (James Caan) to handle negotiations, though he seems to have a vested interest in the final outcome. Meanwhile, Francesca is having an affair with Chidduck’s trusted bodyguard Jeffers (Taye Diggs), who together with partner Obecks (Nicky Katt) concoct their own scheme to eliminate everyone save for the unborn child and make off with the ransom money. All these various schemers finally come together for a blood-splattered showdown at a Mexican hacienda where Robin endures a truly nightmarish labour while the bullets fly.
Here is a cautionary tale for any aspiring filmmakers. Even after winning an Oscar for The Usual Suspects (1995), Christopher McQuarrie found Hollywood studios had no interest in funding any of his projects and wanted him solely as a writer-for-hire. To raise his stock and find backing for his proposed epic about Alexander the Great, McQuarrie made this small scale, hard hitting action-thriller but wound up creating more of a cult oddity than a top-dollar grosser.
Aiming for that similar mix of cowboy spirit and south of the border horror found in Sam Peckinpah pictures like The Getaway (1972) and the much underrated Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), McQuarrie spins an intriguing yarn in The Way of the Gun, crafting a plot that takes some neat twists and turns. However, the film is wilfully quirky with its lead anti-heroes dubbed after the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while James Caan’s character is named after porn director Joe Sarno. Many of the criticisms often unfairly levelled at Quentin Tarantino apply here. Every character is a hardened professional. Everybody is ice cool. They all talk in the clipped patterns of a hardboiled noir hero and have their own existential philosophy to impart.
But while the dialogue may be overly florid at least it’s good dialogue, delivered with relish by a more than capable cast. That said, the real star turns come courtesy of Seventies hard men like Juliette’s real-life father, Geoffrey Lewis - wonderfully wry as a terminally ill gunman - and especially James Caan. Caan is magnificent, striding through shootouts with a laidback, world-weary machismo as he puts the cocky young guns in their place. McQuarrie leavens some of the film’s more unpalatable aspects with a charming scene between Caan and Benicio Del Toro where each affirms their mutual respect, and the moving interplay between Robin, her kidnappers and Sarno at the finale.
Elsewhere, McQuarrie trades the dry wit of The Usual Suspects for a streak of geeky shock humour as evident from the intro where Ryan Phillippe repeatedly punches a young Sarah Silverman in the face. It is something of a lad’s mag crime movie, from its casual misogyny, self-consciously eccentric set-pieces and philosophical asides, and women written off as either mouthy bitches or manipulative ciphers rather too cavalierly stamped with that ugly word that rhymes with “stunt.”
There are some unique action sequences, such as the screen’s slowest car chase where drivers stalk each other through back alleys, and the shootouts benefit from the input of McQuarrie’s brother, a navy SEAL, as technical advisor. Parker and Longbaugh’s carefully coordinated movements and use of cover and room-clearing tactics have that ring of authenticity. McQuarrie handles the climactic shootout well, even if it lacks the visceral satisfaction wrought by Peckinpah or John Woo, but the closing scene is rather too obtuse for its own good. A cracking score by Joe Kramer greatly enhances suspense.