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by: Michael Dequina

With his directorial debut The Way of the Gun, Christopher McQuarrie, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, has said that he "set out to make a crime film in a way that no one would ever ask me to make another crime film again." A number of critics and viewers will doubtlessly hope no one does after witnessing all the buckets of blood shed in this quasi-neo-Western. But if one looks past the carnage, one can see a solid entertainment further distinguished by fine performances.

Despite his Academy-endorsed writing skills, McQuarrie's script is one of the weaker elements of the film. The plot curves that he throws into the story--in which Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro), a pair of small-time crooks, kidnap young surrogate mother Robin (Juliette Lewis), to fetch a ransom from the child's wealthy biological parents--aren't as clever (and, in my minority opinion, not nearly as aggravating) as the ones that characterized the famously twisty Suspects. The wealth of the unborn baby's father, Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), comes from predictably shady sources; gradually revealed are all sorts of hidden entanglements are between the large cast of characters--which also includes Chidduck's wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman); his hired gun Joe Sarno (James Caan); the bodyguards hired to protect Robin, Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt); and Robin's doctor, Allen Painter (Dylan Kussman). There is a sense of inevitability to how some of the various developments come about, which doesn't so much make the twists any less interesting (which they are) than less effective in generating suspense.

Another complaint likely to made about McQuarrie's script are the fairly shallow characterizations, namely that of Parker and Longbaugh. The audience never learns anything about these guys except that they're criminals (and not especially good ones), and they live by the way of the gun. But I don't see this as a flaw; so many films try to force some psychological reasoning as to why certain people are bad that it's rather refreshing to see a film that simply takes them at face value and leaves them at that. And with Phillippe and del Toro giving better performances than usual (Phillippe's blankness is well-suited for such a cipher of a character; del Toro mercifully doesn't indulge in his usual verbal tics), the lack of insight into the pair is made even less of a problem.

That general idea, taken on a larger scale, is why The Way of the Gun works--the shortcomings of the material is compensated by the execution. While everyone in the cast does a fine job, the standouts are a nicely subtle Caan as the world-wise and -weary bagman and especially Lewis--doing her best work in years--as the fragile and very pregnant woman at the center of the whole mess.

Of course, the strong work of the ensemble is just reflective of the overall directorial job by McQuarrie. Although it lasts a minute under two hours, the film progresses at a steady pace and especially comes alive during the exciting and often inventive action sequences. The most unusual and intriguing of these occurs early on: a slow-speed (and I mean slow) car chase in which Jeffers and Obecks pursue Parker and Longbaugh, who dangle their legs from the open doorways of their vehicle--that is, when not abandoning it altogether at certain junctures.

But McQuarrie naturally saves the biggest blowout for the end, closing The Way of the Gun with 30 minutes of raw gunplay and even rawer bloodshed (not all caused by bullets). For a number of viewers, the sequence's unflinchingly excessive violence will be what ultimately does in the film; but for others--such as myself--the over-the-top mayhem closes the film on an electrifying high.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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