2015 Film Essays

We Failed This Film: Christopher McQuarrie’s ‘The Way of the Gun’

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We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the fifth entry, we’ll be loading up and taking a look at Christopher McQuarrie’s forgotten first film, The Way of the Gun.

How We Failed It

Over the past two weekends, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has taken the world by storm. Behind the helm of the franchise’s successful fifth installment is superb filmmaker and storyteller Christopher McQuarrie. Times weren’t always this great for McQuarrie though. Almost twenty years ago, he won an Oscar for writing the The Usual Suspects, and he finally made the move to directing with 2000’s The Way of the Gun. It would be the only film he would direct for more than a decade following the awful box office and critical response. After such failure, McQuarrie was sentenced to director’s jail until Tom Cruise would break him out with 2012’s Jack Reacher and this year’s Rogue Nation.

The plot of The Way of The Gun follows two drifters (Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro) who kidnap a pregnant surrogate mother, Robin (Juliette Lewis), of rich criminal Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson) and hold her for ransom. As they wait for it all to play out, conflicting motives come into play and they discover that they may be the only chance for Robin and her baby to live a free life.

The Way of the Gun had a significantly sized opening with the widest release in over 1,500 theaters, but the film only pulled in $6 million domestically against its $21 million budget. Foreign markets pitched in an additional $7 million to bring the worldwide total up to $13 million, but that’s still a long way off from breaking even.

The critical reaction wasn’t much greater. While many saw much to admire, there weren’t many who seemed to love it. Roger Ebert saw promise in the film, but he remarked that “Up to a point, a twisting plot is entertaining. We enjoy being fooled and surprised. But we have to halfway believe these things could really happen–in a movie, anyway. McQuarrie reaches that point and sails past it like a ski-jumper. We get worn down. At first you’re surprised when you get the rug pulled out from under you. Eventually, if you’re a quick study, you stop stepping on it.” Richard Corliss had the most venomous review: “…a two-hour gunfight interrupted by questions of paternity. But he’s (McQuarrie) not so hot as a director, so what aims at being terrifying is just loud and goofy.”

These two disappointing ends of reception resulted in the exile of Christopher McQuarrie from Hollywood. A large gap of 12 years would go by before we would see him direct another film, and it’s a true shame — just imagine the kind of work we could have received from the man who gave us the final shootout in The Way of the Gun and the opera house scene in Rogue Nation during that time.

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Why It’s Great

Any movie with an opening scene like The Way of the Gun deserves recognition. Our drifters walk out of a dive bar, sit on a guy’s car and set off its alarm. Sarah Silverman (who somehow has just one scene) and her boyfriend come over to lob several profanity-bombed threats that said boyfriend is gonna whoop their asses. He gives them the first move, and Phillippe’s character takes that move by punching Silverman in the face. The two then start fighting an entire crowd of people, getting beaten in the process. What intrigues is the smiles that flash across their faces with each punch taken. McQuarrie gives us plenty of information about these two just in their first moments — they’re not good people, and they know it. They’re fighting against anything they can and happy to receive whatever beating they deserve.

Phillippe begins narrating and calls himself Mr. Parker and Del Toro’s character Mr. Longbaugh. He confirms the presentation of the first scene by remarking that the two of them have nothing to offer the world and know it. They just drift aimlessly looking for a score that will be their destiny.

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Believe it or not, there was a time when it was generally believed that Ryan Phillippe was the next big thing, and this movie shows why. There is promise in Phillippe here that was never subsequently delivered on. There’s a fury in him that’s about to blow, and he handles it well. Benicio Del Toro commands the screen like an icon, doing most of the acting in his facial expressions (or lack thereof). Del Toro is cool when Phillippe is hotheaded, he’s economical when Phillippe is emotional. There’s a lived in chemistry between the two, and you know they’ve been drifting together for a long time in the non-verbal way they communicate, always knowing what the other is planning and moving in sync. They don’t need words to have conversations with each other.

Juliette Lewis has a warmness and innocence that plays well against the misanthropic antics of the drifter duo. That warmth and innocence turns into an undeniable will and strength that Lewis commits to. Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt are threatening presences as the bodyguards responsible for Robin’s security, Kristin Lehman adds an icy presence to the minor role of Hale’s wife and Geoffrey Lewis makes a memorable and tragic turn as Joe’s friend and associate Abner.

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The MVP of the cast is James Caan though, giving one of his greatest performances as aging bagman Joe Sarno. There’s a weariness that hangs over him in each scene that informs each decision. A mutual respect and admiration lies between himself and Mr. Longbaugh; they speak in a shorthand of understanding and knowledge of each other’s business. Sarno feels like a progression of Caan’s character in Michael Mann’s Thief, as he’s worn out by the world he’s in. There’s a scar on Sarno’s neck — the origin is never explained — but from the look on his face and the way he talks, you know it was from something ugly. It’s a physical extension of his personal hell. He, like Parker and Longbaugh, seems to believe he has nothing left to offer this world.

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Cinematographer Dick Pope lends his talents here and frames the film with the visual equivalent of the double cross and cool that McQuarrie writes it with. Each shot feels well planned in elevating the realism of the action. Joe Kraemer’s score is one of escalating tension and mood, revolving around four notes that signal foreboding and magnifies as the film progresses.

There’s a dark comedy that permeates throughout The Way of the Gun. For examplethe silent coolness in which Mr. Longbaugh takes charge with the gas station attendant by giving her a cigarette (while he puts in the pregnancy instruction video), and when Mr. Longbaugh squeezes in an ass-slap as the drifter duo clear out a whorehouse before the final shootout. McQuarrie takes the film and the characters seriously, but he finds comedic moments that hit just right.

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McQuarrie’s direction is cool and calm, his script one of double-crossing as each character has motives that conflict with the others, and these motives set the place for the action. He proves to have an excellent understanding of geography within an action scene while keeping track of the characters’ motivations. Consider the high wire act of the kidnapping that begins with the bodyguards (guns to their heads) threatening to kill the baby if the drifter duo doesn’t leave, followed by a tense car chase that revolves not around high speeds, but cars rolling forward in neutral. The final shootout is one of the greatest put to film this century, taking place in the same location as the final shootout in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. McQuarrie keeps track of each bullet fired, and each character is forced to reload as they would in real life. He keeps the action grounded and tense by steering away from the “endless bullets” trope of action films.

McQuarrie would have to wait 15 years to make another film, but we can now watch him apply these same techniques on the grandest scale in Rogue Nation. Consider the double cross of the motorcycle chases, the geography and the character juggling in the opera house, as the blueprints for them all are in The Way of the Gun.

Going Forward

Tom Cruise has already atoned for our sins, thankfully, making it his personal mission to right our wrongs regarding Christopher McQuarrie. After meeting on the set of Valkyrie, which McQuarrie wrote, Cruise discovered what a talented storyteller the filmmaker is and made him his right hand man going forward. McQuarrie has doctored most of Cruise’s scripts since and received a writing credit on Edge of Tomorrow. Even more, Cruise got him back behind the camera for the fantastic 2012 film Jack Reacher, and he gave him the keys to the kingdom with Rogue Nation. With the success of the Mission Impossible film, McQuarrie can finally do something he hasn’t been able to since the failure of The Way of the Gun: make the film of his choice. I sincerely can’t wait to see what it will be.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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1 reply »

  1. Fantastic article, I too love The Way of the Gun, quote it like scripture, and can’t wait to see what McQuarrie does next.

    The film has a few serious flaws though (mainly pacing, the buildup to the climax takes waaaaaay too long) but it has a special place in my heart.

    Also, the score by Kraemer is amazing. Simple, classic, awesome. A true western score.

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