Monday, January 12, 2009

The Way of the Gun

“People are welcome to hate my film . . . It was never meant to be pleasant. It was never meant to be fun.” – Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie

The Way of the Gun (2000) is a film made out of anger and frustration. After winning an Academy Award for his screenplay for The Usual Suspects (1994), Christopher McQuarrie should have been able to parlay that success into a dream project of his choosing and yet he couldn’t even get arrested while Bryan Singer went on to his own success with the X-Men films. It was actor Benicio del Toro who came to McQuarrie and suggested he write and direct a crime film. The reasoning was that a studio hoping for another potential Usual Suspects would bankroll it. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened but McQuarrie made it on his own terms. The result? A nihilistic action film cum neo-western that is unashamedly at odds with itself. The Way of the Gun straddles the line between the independent and studio worlds. It is easily the best post-modern crime film following in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994).

The prologue plays out like a preview trailer for the film and features a then-relatively unknown Sarah Silverman as the ultimate foul-mouthed girlfriend with a big mouth and who unleashes a profanity-laced tirade on the film’s protagonists that it would have made Richard Pryor blush. Even though it has nothing to do with the rest of the film, its purpose is to set the tone and establish the two protagonists, Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio del Toro), as atypical in that they provoke a fight for no reason, and to let us know that this isn’t going to be your typical action film.

As Parker’s opening monologue states, they live on the margins of society and who “stepped off the path and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us.” He and Longbaugh eke out a minimalist existence with no possessions or creature comforts because, according to Parker, “need is the ultimate monkey.” To get by they sell their blood and sperm, the latter in a very funny scene where the two men are subjected to a series of questions only to give very unconventional answers reminiscent of the clever dialogue in a Tarantino but without the obvious and often jarring popular culture references.

While cooling their heels at the clinic, they catch wind of a woman (Juliette Lewis) being paid one million dollars to have a baby for a rich couple (Scott Wilson and Kristin Lehman) who can’t be bothered to conceive one themselves. So, Parker and Longbaugh decide to kidnap the woman for money in a very unconventional way as they have to get past her two very determined bodyguards (Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs). This results in a shoot-out (in which innocent bystanders are killed in the crossfire) and an unusual car chase that has to be one of the slowest ever put on film.
When the bodyguards fail to protect the pregnant woman, the husband brings in a veteran professional, Joe Sarno (James Caan) and his partner (Geoffrey Lewis) who is introduced playing a bizarre version of Russian roulette (the reasons for which are never explained and left for us to ponder). Caan’s introduction establishes Sarno as the kind of confident criminal that populates Michael Mann’s films – the kind that are ultra-efficient and no-nonsense. You get the feeling that the two bodyguards consider him an over-the-hill geezer who’s out of touch, but Sarno sets them straight: “The only thing you can assume about a broken down old man is that he’s a survivor.”

The Way of the Gun has the requisite action sequences but the way that they are depicted constantly subvert genre conventions. There are no likable characters unless you count James Caan’s quietly confident “adjudicator,” who follows his own personal moral code. As McQuarrie said in an interview, he wasn’t interested in making a film that “you can follow characters who don’t go out of their way to ingratiate themselves to you, who aren’t traditionally sympathetic.” The two protagonists are amoral mercenaries who kidnap a pregnant woman for money. They are, in turn, pursued by two henchmen who are secretly plotting against their employer who has paid the pregnant woman to give him and his self-absorbed trophy wife her baby once it’s born. The employer’s son is a disgraced doctor.
McQuarrie takes the time to reveal the motivation for most of the major players involved. They are complex reasons in comparison to Parker and Longbaugh’s who are just in it for the money until Parker spends too much time with the mother and starts to develop traces of a conscience, conflicting his motivations. And yet whenever this happens, something occurs that snaps him back to the goal at hand: the money.
This film doesn’t care if you like it or not. What spawned such a confrontational attitude in McQuarrie? And what separates The Way of the Gun from other, “talky, violent guys ‘n’ guns” films popular in the 1990s? The answer lies with the aftermath of 1996 Academy Awards. After winning an Oscar, McQuarrie naively thought that he would be able to write his own ticket and “then you slowly start to realize no one in Hollywood is interested in making your film, they’re interested in making their films.” He spent years as a script doctor while trying to get financing together for an epic biopic of Alexander the Great for Warner Brothers. He realized that he had to make a film that was commercially successful if he was going to be treated seriously by Hollywood.

McQuarrie approached 20th Century Fox and told them he would be willing to write and direct a film for any budget that they would be willing to give him so long as he had complete creative control. He remembers that the studio told him “to get fucked. No money. No control. No nothing.” What the studios really wanted was for him to write another Usual Suspects. Angry and frustrated, McQuarrie met Benicio del Toro and producer Ken Kokin (who had also worked on The Usual Suspects) for coffee and the actor convinced the writer to write a crime film on his own terms because he would face the least amount of interference from the studio. However, McQuarrie did not want to be typecast as “a crime guy” but realized that he had nothing to lose. He was, as he puts it, “unemployable and ready to make trouble,” which sounds like the perfect ingredients for a down ‘n’ dirty crime film.

McQuarrie begrudgingly started to write a screenplay and the first thing he did was to write a list of every taboo and “everything I knew a cowardly executive would refuse to accept from a ‘sympathetic’ leading man.” Not surprisingly, he said, “This movie was written from a place of real anger.” The idea for the film came from two sources: Del Toro telling McQuarrie that he had never seen a really interesting kidnapping film and the screenwriter’s wife telling him about an article she had read about an executive with a young wife who hired a surrogate mother so that she could have a child. They even hired bodyguards for the surrogate mother and as soon as McQuarrie heard “bodyguards,” the film came to him. He drew inspiration from films like Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and The Magnificent Seven (1960) because “the camera remains as far back from the action as possible and just captures the drama.”
McQuarrie wrote the first draft in five days. The first ten pages were a prologue, a trailer to another film with Parker and Longbaugh that was to be shot as “slick and hip as possible. Guy Ritchie and Michael Bay but with horrible, unspeakable acts of violence and degradation,” McQuarrie remembers. He realized that this was too extreme and cut it during pre-production. He and Del Toro gave the screenplay to several high-profile actors at the time, all of whom turned them down. Because of the lack of sympathetic characters, McQuarrie didn’t even bother to show the script to any Hollywood studios. Instead, he went to five independent companies and only Artisan Entertainment agreed to make the film.

Artisan resisted the casting of Del Toro because he had an independent film/art house film reputation. The studio wanted Phillippe who had just come off of Cruel Intentions (1999). The young actor wanted to change the direction of his career and, according to McQuarrie, “was besieged with choice offers, and we didn’t want him, but he would not take no for an answer.” The filmmaker met with actor and liked his enthusiasm for the script. Juliette Lewis was McQuarrie’s first choice for Robin, the surrogate mother and wanted her character to tweak the stereotypical view of women in crime films: “The woman is essential to the story and no one wants her around. Everyone wants to be rid of her. She is the complication. She is the conflict.”

The Way of the Gun is the complete antithesis to the crowd-pleasing Usual Suspects with its realistic depiction of violence and how it affects those who inflict it and those who it is inflicted on. In many respects, the film pays homage to the gritty crime films of Sam Peckinpah, like The Getaway (1972) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), especially in the climactic shoot-out in a Mexican brothel but eschewing a flashy, slow-motion bloodbath for a gun battle reminiscent of the bank heist shoot-out in Heat (1995). There’s no stylish editing or jerky, hand-held camerawork. We always know who is where and what is happening. McQuarrie’s film is similar to Peckinpah’s in the types of characters that populate its world and the lack of judgment placed on them. One could easily see Sarno fitting seamlessly into one of Peckinpah’s films. On the surface, McQuarrie’s film appears to be aping Tarantino’s glib, pop culture-saturated dialogue and flashy violence but The Way of the Gun goes deeper, exploring the professional code between criminals like Del Toro and Caan, as well as showing how painful and messy violence really is in a climactic shoot-out that features a graphic childbirth.

Not surprisingly, The Way of the Gun received mixed reviews. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "McQuarrie pulls, pummels and pushes us, makes his characters jump through hoops, and at the end produces carloads of 'bag men' who have no other function than to pop up and be shot at. . .Enough, already.” In his review for the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell wrote, "It's a song you've heard before, but each chord is hit with extraordinary concentration." Andy Seiler praised James Caan's performance in his review for USA Today, "To hear Caan menacingly intone 'I can promise you a day of reckoning you will not live long enough to never forget' is to remember why this man is a star." In his review for the Village Voice, J. Hoberman wrote, "Phillippe talks like Brando; Del Toro apes the body language. Nevertheless, James Caan steals the movie as a veteran tough guy, rotating his torso around some unseen truss.”
The film ends on an ambiguous downer – do they die? What happens to the girl’s baby? The answers to these questions are left up to the individual to figure out. McQuarrie isn’t going to provide any easy answers and he’s not going to hold your hand. Why should he? The entire film was an exercise at subverting expectations and genre conventions. Thankfully, McQuarrie doesn’t compromise his intentions one iota – the benefit of making the film independently. He wanted to make a film that was “difficult to watch. I wanted to make a film about violence and criminals that had to be endured rather than something that entertained without consequence.” Whether you like The Way of the Gun or not, there’s no question that he succeeded in what he wanted to do.


SOURCES

Konow, David. “The Way of the Screenwriter: An Interview with Christopher McQuarrie.” Creative Screenwriting. September/October 2000.


Malanowski, Jamie. “Making the Movie They Let You Make.” The New York Times. September 3, 2000.

8 comments:

  1. This is such an under appreciated film. I can remember seeing it with a group of friends on opening night with about 6 other people in the theater. Needless to say, the 10 of us who were there laughed, cringed and enjoyed every second of the film's unexpected narrative. One of my favs.

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  2. You are correct, sir. I had exactly the same experience seeing it opening night. I guess the film was just too extreme for a mainstream audience but it sure is under-appreciated and will maybe re-discovered one day.

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  3. Hey J.D. I've had so many friends of mine bugging me to see this film over the years. For some reason unknown to me, I've just never gotten around to it. It's not been that I haven't been interested in seeing it. This post definitely has inspired me to get off my butt and get it soon from Netflix.

    P.S. I do hope you like that meme I tagged you in and will be willing to participate. Thanks.

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  4. Keith:

    Yeah, you should check out the film. I'm curious to know what you think of it.

    I will be participating in your meme. I'm just trying to narrow down my list!

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  5. I didn't know much of anything about this film, so thanks for the review, including the in-depth history of the production.

    This fits in somewhat with an idea that's been circling in my head, a blog - perhaps called Amateur Hour - which looks into work created outside the industry conventions of production. Obviously with its big stars and relatively bigger budget (and its Oscar-winning scribe) Way of the Gun doesn't exactly fit the bill, but in other ways your story paints an interesting picture of someone who, despite his success, couldn't swim in the industry and had to flop around on dry land to create his work.

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  6. MovieMan0283:

    Thank you for the kind words. You bring up an interesting point.

    In a sense, THE WAY OF THE GUN was created outside of the industry. It was an independently financed film that all the major Hollywood studios rejected. I'm always fascinated by production stories for films, esp. when they have a checkered past. And even after McQuarrie made his film and got it out there, it didn't do well commercially or critically.

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  7. Really excellent review on a film I only saw once and suspect that I undervalued. Your post makes me want to give it another go so I am going to put it in the NetFlix que. Thanks!

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  8. Hey Jeremy, thanks for stopping by and for the comments. Give it another go, I'd be really curious to know what you think of it.

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