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(2000) (Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe) (R)

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Drama/Suspense/Thriller: Two smalltime career criminals get far more than they bargained for when they kidnap the pregnant surrogate mother to a wealthy couple.
Parker (RYAN PHILLIPPE) and Longbaugh (BENICIO DEL TORO) are longtime criminal partners who've grown tired of "making a living" through petty crime, contract hits and even the occasional sperm donation. It's during the latter when they overhear information that will be the catalyst for their potentially most lucrative crime yet.

It seems that a certain young woman, Robin (JULIETTE LEWIS), have agreed to be the surrogate mother for a well-to-do Southwestern "businessman," Hale Chidduck (SCOTT WILSON), and his younger trophy wife, Francesca (KRISTIN LEHMAN).

Being the opportunists they are, Parker and Longbaugh figure they can kidnap Robin and demand a hefty ransom. After a violent gun battle with two of Chidduck's bodyguards, Jeffers (TAYE DIGGS) and Obecks (NICKY KATT), they do just that. Yet, when they call in Robins' obstetrician, Dr. Allen Painter (DYLAN KUSSMAN), they learn the harsh reality of their situation.

It turns out that Chidduck is a ruthless and powerful criminal himself, a man with enough money and connections to get anything he wants done. As such, he assigns Joe Sarno (JAMES CAAN), a professional and highly efficient "bag man," to take care of the problem and leave no loose ends.

With Parker and Longbaugh taking Robin to a remote Mexican town, Sarno and his longtime associate, Abner (GEOGGREY LEWIS), set out to find the kidnapers and resolve the situation. With the various involved parties jockeying to gain the upper hand, it soon becomes evident that everyone's intentions aren't what they seem, all of which leads to a dramatic and violent conclusion.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that certain movie genres are targeted at and play specifically well to certain audience demographics. For example, slasher films seem to work best with teens and romantic comedies play best to adult females, while war pictures and other violent "shoot 'em up" films appeal more to men than women.

Considering its title, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to viewers that "The Way of the Gun" is one of those latter films and that, yes, it will probably play best to -- and maybe only to -- predominantly male audiences.

A violent and bloody film filled with unapologetic and very unsympathetic characters, double-crossing motives and behavior, and enough gunfire to make even Charlton Heston proud, the film marks the directorial debut of Christopher McQuarrie, who received an Oscar for his screenplay for 1994's "The Usual Suspects."

An uneven but often viscerally enthralling picture, the film contains what's arguably the most impressively staged and executed gun battle sequences since those found in Michael Mann's far more impressive and accomplished film, "Heat." While McQuarrie mounts some striking individual scenes and sequences, his film occasionally shows the markings of a novice director at work.

The biggest flaw, at least in my opinion, is that we don't like and aren't impressed by any of the characters. In "Heat," the characters may have been criminals and/or otherwise seriously flawed individuals, but at least they were usually magnetic in the way they were constructed and/or played by the likes of De Niro, Pacino, Kilmer and the rest of the cast.

Although James Caan - as the simply, but imaginatively labeled "bag man" -- manages to exude some of that in this picture, the rest of the characters and the performers who inhabit them don't have what it takes to mesmerize and/or lift the viewer above the violent fray and rather unsavory material that constantly oozes from the film.

To McQuarrie's credit, this isn't a first-time filmmaker's oversight or careless omission. He's stated that he purposefully didn't want to glamorize the characters or present the violence in a heavily stylized, Sam Peckinpah/John Woo way. You know, the type of films where exaggerated slow motion, balletic maneuvers and shell casings pouring out of guns and bouncing on the floor make everything seem so cool.

While his depiction of violence isn't as realistically portrayed or on par with what was brutally presented in "Saving Private Ryan," it does have a rather straightforward aggressiveness to it, something akin to watching a pack of lions doing their thing to their prey. Like such predators, the characters here act and react almost instinctively and without remorse.

As such, McQuarrie succeeds in creating his unsympathetic characters. Yet, since we don't care about any of them and aren't mesmerized enough - for good or bad -- by their attitudes and actions, the film becomes the equivalent of viewing a brutal documentary about nature's predators. It may work on viewers in a pit of the stomach type way - which some will inevitably enjoy - but without anyone to root for, the film doesn't have the chance to become a classic in the genre.

It also suffers a bit from mismanaged/bungled momentum. This is the sort of film that's supposed to continually build from start to finish, with the viewer's anticipation rising as much as that of the characters' adrenaline. While it does conclude with a viscerally stimulating gun battle finale, the trip to that point often feels a bit uneven.

Part of that stems from the time McQuarrie spends on constructing and then delivering the film's many twists, double-crosses and character revelations. While they certainly give the film a bit more depth and complexity than what's usually found in the "shoot 'em up" genre, it's doubtful they'll surprise and/or mesmerize viewers as much as the writer/director intended and hoped for.

One area where the film succeeds is in the dialogue that McQuarrie puts into his characters mouths. It's the type of spoken language that only movie characters can vocalize and if you tried to deliver lines such as "Understand, fifteen millions dollars is not money. It's a motive with a universal adaptor on it," people would think you were crazy, or simply an aspiring actor or screenwriter. Yet, when the characters speak it here, it has that cool and hip cinematic aura that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.

Despite their lack of stellar charisma and other usually necessary magnetic qualities, the performances are all solid, particularly considering what's asked of them. Both Benicio Del Toro ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," "The Usual Suspects") and the pumped up Ryan Phillippe ("Cruel Intentions," "Playing By Heart") make believable, low-life thugs, and while they're no Butch and Sundance (an inevitable comparison considering that they find themselves in a similar, climatic showdown in a Spanish speaking town), their unapologetic demeanor and actions efficiently propel the film from one point to the next.

Juliette Lewis ("Natural Born Killers," "Cape Fear") gives another one of her earthy, gravely-voiced performances as the kidnapped pregnant woman, while Taye Diggs ("The Best Man," "House on Haunted Hill") and Nicky Katt ("Rules of Engagement," "Boiler Room") are credible, if underdeveloped as her armed bodyguards. The rest of the supporting takes from the likes of Scott Wilson ("In the Heat of the Night"), Dylan Kussman ("Dead Poets Society") and Kristin Lehman ("Dog Park") are decent, but similarly undernourished, although it's Geoffrey Lewis ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") who gets the most mileage out of his character.

The best performance, however, comes from James Caan ("Mickey Blue Eyes," "The Godfather") as the seasoned and world-weary "bag man" who's after the two kidnappers. Like an old pit bull on a leash, Caan's character initially seems tamed by the effects of time, but then every so often unleashes his menace and fury on those who've crossed his path. Of course, playing that sort of character and/or characterizations isn't anything new for Caan, but he does it so well that he becomes the film's most mesmerizing character.

From a technical standpoint, the film looks wonderful. McQuarrie has given the film a very monochromatic feel (much of it's some variant of brown), cinematographer Dick Pope's ("Topsy-Turvy," "Secrets & Lies") camerawork is topnotch and editor Stephen Semel ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs," "Fandango") does a good job of assembling the many gun battles.

While McQuarrie may have attempted to avoid glamorizing the film's violence and the characters who commit it, some stylization inevitably occurs. As such, the film is occasionally engaging, with such violence coming off as both gripping and disturbing in its presentation. Nonetheless, without any true sympathetic characters, the result is like watching a pride of lions tearing into each other. We know some are going to die, but in the end, we don't really care which ones. As a result, "The Way of the Gun" doesn't manage to escape that aspect of viewer apathy, and thus rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 31, 2000 / Posted September 8, 2000

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