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‘The Way of the Gun,’ Christopher McQuarrie and the fine art of adjudication

Ryan Philippe and Benicio Del Toro star in 'The Way of the Gun'.
Ryan Philippe and Benicio Del Toro square off against Taye Diggs in 'The Way of the Gun'. (Image credit: Lionsgate)

Working alongside Tom Cruise on Jack Reacher, what will eventually be four Mission: Impossible films and several other Cruise projects as a writer and/or producer, Christopher McQuarrie has become the movies’ most prolific (and skilled) purveyor of thinking man’s thrills. His set pieces are inventive and breathless; his characters vivid and engaging. But a little over two decades ago, he was an Oscar-winning screenwriter whose movies no studio wanted to make. Then he made The Way of the Gun, a movie not a whole lot of people liked, at the time anyway.

On that film’s 20th anniversary, it’s past time for a revisit - a “readjudication,” in the words of James Caan’s grizzled Joe Sarno. It took McQuarrie 12 more years and hitching his wagon to no less than the biggest star in the world to revitalize his career in the way that his early successes promised. The Way of the Gun is an absolutely top-shelf crime thriller in an era of copycat brutality and superficial cleverness, a movie that not only stands the test of time far better than its critics ever would have expected upon its initial release, but showcase the exact qualities that have made him such a unique, engaging storyteller on what has become one of the biggest canvasses in Hollywood.

By 2000, it’s easy to forgive critics for their fatigue with fast-talking crime thrillers. Tarantino ushered in an absolute revolution of conventions that would be repeated and revisited and imitated until they offered nothing to anyone but the screenwriters smirking over their word processors. The Way of the Gun, however, comes from a different tradition than Tarantino’s, even if its existence - meaning the money to make it - owes a debt to the industry’s appetite for stories that seem the same.

After winning an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, McQuarrie struggled to finance his dream project, biopic of Alexander the Great, and subsequently realized that studios were altogether disinterested in making his movies. Convinced by Benicio Del Toro to revisit the genre that had previously rewarded him so handsomely, McQuarrie wrote a film that was as caustic and unfriendly to audiences as he felt after more rejection than he ever expected. The result was an unwieldy and violent but sneakily emotional story about two petty criminals whose effort to level up to the big leagues is stymied by, alternately, inexperience and their own irrepressible humanity.

Del Toro convinced him to pare down the original script’s wall-to-wall dialogue for a more sparse but expressive approach. The characters were cleverly dubbed Parker (Ryan Philippe) and Longbaugh (Del Toro), after the real last names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A confrontational opening sequence featuring them in acts of violence and depravity, shot as slickly as Guy Ritchie or Michael Bay might, was excised for being too extreme. And what emerged was not another hip ‘90s crime movie but the guts of a lost 1970s one, where the cleverness of the script belied the frequent fecklessness of the criminals caught in its machinery, a close relative of The Getaway or The Hot Rock or, yes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where pressed luck, dogged determination, unscrupulous principles and a couple of instances of good fortune catapulted two small-timers out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The score that runs through the film combines harmonica, castanets (evidently sampled from Maurice Jarre’s theme for The Professionals) and bass drums of doom, evokes the dusty, half-successful criminal enterprises of Steve McQueen and a young Robert Redford. The casting choices underline that legacy in a more direct and powerful way than, say, Tarantino did with his career revivals: Caan as Sarno feels like a no-brainer - who else could say “The only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man is that he’s a survivor” with more lived-in authenticity? But in Scott Wilson as money launderer Hale Chidduck, McQuarrie traces a line back to the remarkable, chilling In Cold Blood, where he played one of the real-life murderers, and Geoffrey Lewis was in 1970s films great and small but always giving indelible performances.

Then there was the dialogue, that hallmark of Tarantino’s films that was often aped but seldom successfully recreated. McQuarrie uses his as mock-profundity, as signifiers of character, and a razor-sharp delivery system for storytelling: the two men’s reactions to being questioned before donating sperm (Del Toro is cryptic and unsettling, Philippe crude and confrontational) tells us what we need to know about them, and introduce dispositions that play out expectedly throughout the rest of the film. The characters offer a seemingly indefatigable parade of white-hot one-liners (“A woman needs security like a man needs approval;” “I don’t think this is a brains kind of operation;” “I promise you a day of reckoning that you won't live long enough to never forget”) that don’t even need to accompany a plot as smart as the rest of the movie delivers. The cool level is off the charts.

There is real plot working in the story that ties everything together, enabling McQuarrie as a first-time director to mount some incredible action sequences and some even more powerful dramatic moments. The chase after the initial kidnapping unfolds in fits and starts, a masterstroke of suspense that he obliquely revisits at greater scale in Jack Reacher, and again in the Mission: Impossible films. The climactic shootout provides the bloody finale that Butch Cassidy viewers never got to see, giving catharsis both to the two seemingly amoral characters in this film, but also the ones in the film that inspired it. The relationships between these characters are exposed and underlined in between those brilliant bon mots, creating these powerful emotional bonds that shape the narrative and give the whole thing a meaning above and beyond blood and bullets.

Parker and Longbaugh aren’t softies, but they recognize pretty quickly that they’re not monsters, either; kidnapping a pregnant woman is one thing, but their abusive posturing is transparently an act in the face of undeniable humanity. Hale’s contentious relationship with his son Allen (Dylan Kussman) gives the natural manipulator leverage but also inescapable regret as he realizes that the faustian bargain he’s struck with his financiers will have to be paid in blood, and he doesn’t want it to be Allen’s. And finally, Caan’s arrival at the Mexican whorehouse signals an explosion of action, but the most powerful moment is his reaction just after seeing his daughter, bloody and endangered by a plan initially designed to help him, now gone violently awry, and reckoning with what he asked of her, and what it cost them both.

Then there are the very simple but resonant choices, subverting cliché and cool, that forced McQuarrie to be smart instead of clever. Parker and Longbaugh demand $15 million in cash, but have you seen that much money? It’s a lot bigger and tougher to transport than you might think. Longbaugh breaks a window to steal car, and the first try doesn’t work. When Parker dives into the bed of an empty fountain for cover, he finds not protection, but broken glass embedded in his forearms. When you watch Cruise’s knee scrape the ground in Rogue Nation, these are the details that make these sequences sing, make them alive and real and electric. McQuarrie may seem to be using the language of gutter poetry, or the blueprints of a familiar design, but he’s building it into something identifiable and human, and unique.

McQuarrie’s debut is truly a great movie - a criminally underrated entry in a genre that suffered more from playing itself out than a filmmaker who used its rules ineffectually, or poorly, and the kind of breakthrough that commercial success aside we normally might marvel at, heralding potential genius. But critics saw McQuarrie copying himself, and audiences saw him copying Tarantino and everybody else that came in between them. Now, of course, Tarantino is on his singular path, and McQuarrie is on another. But as Parker says late in the film, “I think a plan is just a list of things that don't happen.” No one could have planned, or imagined, either of them. But The Way of the Gun suggests that the groundwork of his greatness as a screenwriter and director was laid, even before anyone - possibly including McQuarrie himself - could see it.