The Tarantino effect is very much in evidence in “The Way of the Gun,” a disappointing feature directorial debut from Christopher McQuarrie, who won the original screenplay Oscar for “The Usual Suspects.” This pedestrian retro crimer concerns two longtime petty criminals, played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro, whose kidnapping of a pregnant woman goes awry, with escalating but essentially unexciting twists and consequences. A gifted ensemble that also includes James Caan, Juliette Lewis and Taye Diggs is wasted in a lethargically paced yarn that overextends its welcome by at least 25 minutes. Dismissive reviews and word of mouth will quickly send the Artisan release to the video bin, where it’s likely to collect dust rather than potential fans.
The problem with “Gun” is not only that it’s out of time and place — the film belongs to the mid-1990s “Pulp Fiction”-inspired hip heist pics cycle — but that it also gives the impression that McQuarrie believes he has something significant to say.
The precredit sequence achieves the dubious distinction of having more foul words per frame than any film in recent memory. Set outside a club, it depicts thugs Parker and Longbaugh (Phillippe and Del Toro, respectively) who first ignore, then brutally beat a couple that demand they get off their car. In the press notes, McQuarrie boasts that his film is more realistic because, among other things, it portrays violence that doesn’t discriminate between men and women.
Abuse of women dominates the film through the central character of Robin (Lewis), a pregnant femme who’s about to donate her baby to a wealthy married couple, Hale and Francesca Chidduck (Scott Wilson and Kristin Lehman), for $1 million. The Chidducks rely on the services of Dr. Allen Painter (Dylan Kussman), and on the smooth execution of their plan by bodyguards Jeffers (Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt).
In a voiceover narration that bookends the film, tough outlaw Parker claims he and Longbaugh have one skill (which explains the title), and that no matter what their actions are, “We don’t come for absolution. We don’t ask to be redeemed.” This sets the tone for a yarn that proudly presents itself as both immoral and amoral.
For contempo desperadoes Parker and Longbaugh, crime means survival at any cost, a life that doesn’t recognize such old-fashioned notions as fairness or forgiveness. After donating their sperm in a clinic, they abduct Robin, a desperate woman just weeks from delivering her son. They hope for a quick and nonviolent payoff, but the not-too-bright duo fail to realize that foster father Chidduck is a shrewd sleazeball himself, a businessman tycoon, assisted by vet criminals Sarno (Caan) and his longtime henchman Abner (Geoffrey Lewis).
As in “Usual Suspects,” appearances are deceptive. It soon becomes clear that no one tells the truth, and that each character has ulterior motives. For a while, the story propels itself via unexpected revelations about the main characters.
As he showed in “Suspects,” McQuarrie is effective at creating suspenseful, if illogical, labyrinths in which the characters think they possess control over their lives. Unfortunately, once Parker and Longbaugh cross the Mexican border and check into a shabby motel, the yarn gets static, redundant and dull.
It doesn’t help that the five or six prolonged shoot-outs are poorly executed and inserted into the saga. For a whole reel, Robin is lying in a bloody bed, waiting for a surgical delivery due to complications. Periodically, there are preposterous and risible statements, such as “All I care about is the baby,” though no one is doing anything in this direction. The sight of a hapless pregnant woman in excruciating pain will upset viewers and will provide further ammunition for those already objecting to Hollywood’s excessive gore and mayhem.
That all the characters, with the possible exception of Sarno, are immoral makes things worse, despite McQuarrie’s hope “to make the audience sympathize with bad people without ever apologizing for their actions.” Nonetheless, beneath this macho bravado, story reveals soft spots: One of the yarn’s few touching elements is the tentative relationship that evolves between Robin and Parker, who is not the tough baddie he seems to be.
Despite its ambitions, “The Way of the Gun” fails to impress as either a pulpish crime noir or a modern Western. Some handsomely shot scenes by Dick Pope (Mike Leigh’s longtime collaborator) are pleasing to the eye, but overall pic is shapeless, and further marred by an awkward tempo that calls attention to itself and prevents any emotional engagement.
Each of the talented thesps has some good moments, but, ultimately, none can rise above the limitations of the material and filmmaking to construct a coherent character.