For most movies, you don’t want to spoil the ending. For Christopher McQuarrie’s The Way of the Gun, you don’t want to spoil the beginning. In a recent discussion of favorite opening sequences, thesplitsaber pitched this one, and it’s great, featuring a visual joke, an elegant misdirection, a bit of foreshadowing, and it establishes right away who the protagonists really are: “these are not good people, they do not do good things.”
The non-goodness of the protagonists (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro, and the names Phillippe gives them are another joke) turns out to be essential to what McQuarrie does here. The Way of the Gun is a caper film (Phillipe and del Toro kidnap surrogate mother Juliette Lewis) where there’s almost no morality in play; with one possible exception, everyone acts according to self-interest. It works, because in McQuarrie’s world, self-interest has a lot of different definitions and that leads to a fair amount of complexity in what happens, and because he illustrates as few other filmmakers have the amoral nature of ownage. Although there are hard-drinking men, shootouts, Mexico, and the vulnerability of male and female bodies on display here, it’s that understanding that really links this film to Peckinpah’s work. If Extreme Prejudice was Walter Hill’s take on The Wild Bunch, The Way of the Gun is McQuarrie’s version of The Getaway, a Jim Thompsonian world where mistrust is the most fundamental social interaction.
McQuarrie’s direction here has something unique and effective, especially in action sequences. (He would go on to direct much bigger films, most recently Jack Reacher and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.) It’s elliptical; specifically, he often omits the preludes to violence and gunplay, or he’ll frame things to leave out key pieces of information. We’re forever catching up to the action; what just happened is clear, but what’s happening isn’t. He’s also one of the few directors who incorporates reloading as an important part of shootouts. Oh, and pay close attention and you’ll hear an out-of-nowhere (and fairly vicious) joke on McQuarrie’s occasional collaborator Bryan Singer.
He assembles a strong cast here too: Phillippe’s baby face has some real menace to it–he’s like the younger, less successful brother of Val Kilmer’s character in Heat. del Toro remains just as weird a presence as in The Usual Suspects (written by McQuarrie); Lewis was still very much on her game here; Nicky Katt and Taye Diggs are both iconic as bodyguards (Diggs’ statue-carved-out-of-obsidian look has never been scarier); and a decade and a half after Thief, James Caan remains the absolute last guy you wanna fuck with. My favorite, though, is Scott Wilson in the Wealthy/Dangerous Guy role. Wilson’s career ranges from In Cold Blood (1967) to The Walking Dead (2014) and it’s still going and he remains capable of delivering anything a script asks of him. Here he can shift between kindly, smart, and lethal and keep every facet of the character in our minds at all times. McQuarrie writes stock characters here, and he’s not trying to invest them with psychological depth so much as unpredictability. Wilson’s perfect for that.
The Way of the Gun streams free on Amazon Prime.