The gray underbelly of the testosterone universe has long been an idyllic entity nearly to impossible capture with any justifiable voice on the big screen. In the 60’s and 70’s, Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone smeared the black and white virtues of the cinematic paradigm by making heroes out of morally ambiguous men living in violent enclaves. Their visions were at once unsettling and gorgeously alluring. It was their precedent that carved the path for generations of filmmakers to follow, including such notables as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and more recently Quentin Tarantino. The handsome new film, “Way of the Gun,” by first time director Christopher McQuarrie wants to be one of these violent, manly yet provocative films, but unfortunately it unfurls as more of a big budgeted student film; a collage of borrowed images paying homage to great directors.
If McQuarrie’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s the Academy Award-winning screenwriter who penned “The Usual Suspects”. At his disposal, McQuarrie has a superb cast. Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe play Longbaugh and Parker, two petty criminals who drift across the arid southwest looking for quick payoffs. Most of their successes come from selling bodily fluids — blood and semen. It’s at a sperm bank that they learn of a woman (Julliette Lewis) who is being paid one million dollars to bear the child of an industrial tycoon because his trophy wife is too fussy to deal with the inconvenience of pregnancy.
Longbaugh and Parker smell money and abduct the woman for a fifteen million dollar ransom. The problem is that the tycoon has a battery of security agents to watch over his investment. One faction, a platoon of pseudo FBI, men-in-black professionals are led by a lethally robotic Taye Diggs, while James Caan’s cagey attaché lurks on the periphery, coolly playing the ends against the middle.
After a shoot out at an obstetrician’s office and a slow rolling, but ingeniously enthralling car chase, the film morphs into a cat-and-mouse, robbers-on-the-lam movie with Longbaugh, Parker and hostage making for the border with a hive of unrelenting mercenaries on their backs. The plot points are not far from Peckinpah’s weirdly brilliant “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” or “The Getaway,” but “Way of the Gun” lacks those films’ focus and resolve.
Most of the film’s flaws come from McQuarrie’s text. There’re too many convoluted subplots and the dialogue rifles along as if Tarantino had over baked the spoken words from a Jim Thompson novel. For the initial portion of the film, except for the slick opening sequence — albeit a non sequitur of a vignette that has little to do with the rest of the story, where the two hoods act as coyly cool as their over-articulated voiceovers — Longbaugh and Parker are bungling John Dillinger wannabes. That’s why it’s so perplexing when they begin to coldly toy with the fate of their package or mercilessly torture one of the pursuing specters. With little foundation, they move from wayward souls to blood-happy psychopaths. Del Toro’s Longbaugh plays sympathetic foil to Phillippe’s hardboiled Parker, but the sum of their criminal activity offers no redemption, no heroics; just reprehensible mayhem.
Like the rest of the movie, the final resolution is a hodgepodge of film allegories. It’s essentially a “Wild Bunch” bullet blaze shoot out in Leone’s dusty south-of-the-border town square from “A Fistful of Dollars.” There are some nice touches, such as the central water fountain, bone dry and littered with glass shards, and Caan’s slow calculating gunmanship, but then there’s the gruesome birthing scene that’s egregiously bloody and totally unnecessary. If there’s one thing McQuarrie can learn from the men he seeks to emulate: less is more. Every drop of blood, every bullet and every cold machismo word should make its own profound statement. Anything more is just some depraved desperado on the 10 O’clock news trying to make a self interested score, and there’s nothing noble or intriguing to that.