The Bagmen Cometh

Go The Way of the Gun, and you shall be rewarded

This is the beginning of The Way of the Gun you will not see, because it was written but never filmed: Two men, Parker and Longbaugh, urinate in an open grave in front of mourners, beat up a priest, steal organs meant for transplant, and shoot a dog. The introduction, ten script pages long, was to be shot in the style of a Michael Bay picture -- all bag-o'-tricks technique, no point to any of it. The introduction was intended to look like a trailer of sorts, a sneak peek at The Adventures of Parker and Longbaugh, and it was to end with a hand ripping a red filter off the lens, revealing a bleak, bland Midwestern "reality" after all the razzle and dazzle. But writer-director Christopher McQuarrie thought better of including this introduction, even if he did intend The Way of the Gun as film and film criticism. He figured it was just better to leave the hackwork to the hacks.

All that remains of the written introduction is the film's opening scene, set in a club's parking lot. The Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" blares on the soundtrack until it suddenly stops, giving way to the sound of a car alarm: Parker (Ryan Phillippe, sporting a pubic beard) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro, looking lost and dangerous), lazily shooting the breeze, have made themselves comfortable on someone else's hood. A frizzy-haired freak shouts at the two to get off his car, but it's the man's girlfriend (played by standup comic Sarah Silverman) who calls the duo out for a fight: "You like to fuck baby heads?!" she bellows, trying to goad them with each escalating insult. But they need no provocation; they'll take all comers. With that a parking-lot brawl ensues, the Stones reappear (cranked up louder then before), and Parker and Longbaugh are left beaten and bloodied on the cement. Then the opening credits roll; the movie hasn't even begun.

If the opener is a shotgun blast, what follows is the echo and the satisfying ache in the shoulder: McQuarrie, who won an Academy Award in 1995 for his screenplay of The Usual Suspects, has penned a screenplay this time out that is all blank spaces. His characters barely speak to one another, exchanging glances and shrugs instead of lines of dialogue. Where The Usual Suspects was one big, brilliant put-on (a criminal telling a cop what he wanted and needed to hear, leading him down a path littered with lies), The Way of the Gun allows the audience to make up the story, to fill in the gaps. We're given the barest of essentials -- ambiguous characters, desert settings, bang-bang action -- but motivations remain buried, hinted at but seldom revealed. If The Usual Suspects is all plot, a winding road map on the printed page, then The Way of the Gun takes place between the lines. Every single utterance is quotable, but only because there are so few.

Benicio Del Toro (behind car) and Ryan Phillippe are on a wild ride in the year's best movie
Benicio Del Toro (behind car) and Ryan Phillippe are on a wild ride in the year's best movie

On the surface it's a familiar story: Parker and Longbaugh are two career cons looking for the fortune that's been looking for them. "The ending is always happy," Phillippe mutters in voice-over early on, "if only for someone else." (Phillippe talks to the audience on occasion, but he barely ever talks to Longbaugh -- as it should be, because partners need not explain themselves to each other just for the benefit of others. For the first time in a long time, movie characters act like real people, and look like them as well, a bit soft and out of focus.)

The duo travels from here to nowhere, picking up spare change along the road; early on they make a deposit in a sperm bank, perusing the porn with little interest. There they overhear a receptionist talking about a woman who's carrying the baby of a wealthy couple unable to have their own. Parker and Longbaugh are thus properly motivated: Knowing only the basics ("deep pockets, a pregnant woman, bodyguards, and a doctor's name"), they set out to kidnap the girl, Robin (Juliette Lewis), outside the office of her doctor, Allen Painter (played with damp-eyed fear by Dylan Kussman), and hold her for ransom. When their plan goes bad, after a car chase that takes place at Flintstones pacing, Parker calls Dr. Painter for help, against Longbaugh's grunted protests. "You have too much faith in people, man," he tells Parker, to which his partner responds, "How can you kidnap people without it?"

But their simple plan crumbles when Painter tells them who they're messing with: The "father" of Robin's child is a man named Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), who "makes his living collecting other people's garbage." He's soft on the outside but has veins made of barbed wire; he either doesn't know or doesn't care that his pretty young wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman), is carrying on an affair with one of Robin's bodyguards, Jeffers, played by Taye Diggs. (Nicky Katt appears as Obecks, Jeffers' partner.) But Hale will not allow two thugs to kidnap his child, the sole object of his desire. He calls on old friend Joe Sarno (James Caan, the bagman in a Members Only jacket) to deliver the money, kill Parker and Longbaugh, and return his child. Robin, it turns out, is a moot point -- to Hale, at least. Finally the film builds not toward a climax but a clusterfuck: It's The Wild Bunch played for sick, smart grins.

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