*** Stars
(US 2000)
Rated R



Starring:
Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, James Caan

Directed by Nigel Cole

Writing Credits: Christopher McQuarrie

Artisan Entertainment * 119 minutes

Screened at: Clearview Washington Cinemas

Ordinarily, any film that is not only hyped as being "like PULP FICTION," but also stars Benecio del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, and Juliette Lewis, would cause me to run screaming in the other direction. I am among the minority that has preferred such "just like PULP FICTION" flicks as TWO DAYS IN THE VALLEY to the real thing; del Toro and Lewis are two of the most annoying scene-chewers in the business, while Phillippe hasn't turned in a real performance since 1995's LITTLE BOY BLUE. But THE WAY OF THE GUN is both penned and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the deranged mind that brought us THE USUAL SUSPECTS, and this was a factor I couldn't resist.

Del Toro and Phillippe are Parker and Longbaugh (also the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), two dirtbags who believe that their only options in life are "petty crime or minimum wage," and that "need is the ultimate monkey." During a bizarrely funny scene in a sperm bank, where they go to donate for bucks, they hear of a young woman who's acting as a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) for a rich family. They plan to kidnap the woman and ask for $15 million ransom. The plan is hatched successfully, and our antiheroes encounter a large number of interrelated people, each of whom has an agenda.

McQuarrie has assembled an interesting cast. Benecio del Toro, last seen in Terry Gilliam's near-unwatchable FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, is downright laid back here by comparison. With his coarse, heavy features, he looks alternately like he could be either the second coming of Edward G. Robinson, David Johansen after a particularly rough bender in his pre-Buster Poindexter days, or Leonardo DiCaprio's uglier older brother. He's perfectly cast as a small-time misfit crook, albeit a more thoughtful one than he has any business being. Asked if he's the brains of the operation, he replies, with amazing self-knowledge, "I don't think this is a brains kind of operation."

Also surprisingly subdued is Juliette Lewis, a perfectly unwatchable actress, who received much hype due to her finger-sucking scene with Robert DeNiro in CAPE FEAR, and for her gun moll opposite Woody Harrelson in NATURAL BORN KILLERS. Here, as Robin, the surrogate mother, she suppresses her usual overacting and tics. She conveys a mixture of toughness and vulnerability, as befits an amoral girl who got into this hellish arrangement for a cool $1 million in cash, only to find that she doesn't want to go through with it.

Phillippe, who begged to play the role of Parker, actually gives something resembling a performance. Not entirely convincing as a dirtbag criminal who's killed before, Phillippe conveys an underlying sweetness that not even his ratty clothes and scruffy goatee can hide. Directors swear that he's brilliant, but this critic has yet to see it. I keep hoping to see an actor there, I truly do, if only to show that Reese Witherspoon, as smart a young actress as has sprung in the last ten years, isn't just a sucker for a pretty face. With all his apparent limitations, Phillippe at least deserves credit for taking his craft seriously, studiously avoiding the teen dreamboat roles that would bring the easy money. And while flamboyance isn't necessary to give a great performance (witness Tobey Maguire, also an extremely quiet, laid-back actor, who can paint an entire character in one line or one facial expression), Phillippe's monotonality makes him seem merely closed-up. But at least here he's not required to be the prettiest thing in the movie. That honor belongs to Taye Diggs, who is once again the handsomest, baddest, coolest guy around, or at least the one in a film not starring Samuel L. Jackson. Impeccably coiffed and clad, carrying himself like a Secret Service agent, he's riveting, if underutilized, as Jeffords, one of the rich guy's henchman, and he also has a vested interest in seeing this surrogate pregnancy through to its conclusion.

A surprisingly touching performance by James Caan, as Joe Sarno, the rich guy's bag man, sometimes seems to have been phoned in, if only because Caan is making a late-life career out of playing these aging gangster types. What makes Sarno interesting is that he has traces of the world-weary sentimentality that Caan conveyed in THIS IS MY FATHER. For an actor who made such a huge splash as Sonny Corleone in the immortal THE GODFATHER, Caan has had a singularly undistinguished career, until the last three years, in which he can riff on both his own earlier image, and the experiences and disappointments of a life lived, well, somewhat erratically. Certainly no one but James Caan can utter a line like "I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough to never forget" and not make you think it's a Leslie Nielsen flick.

McQuarrie struts some nifty stuff as a director, even if the story seems somewhat overly convoluted, as if he were playing "Can You Top This" with himself in trying to outdo his earlier effort, the acclaimed THE USUAL SUSPECTS. McQuarrie did not want to do a crime drama, but having capitulated, decided to make as complex a crime drama as he could muster. The film has some wonderful shots that help establish character, including a hilarious scene in which Parker and Longbaugh grill an intake interviewer at a sperm bank, one shortly thereafter, in which both men, skin magazines in front of them, realize the possibilities while overhearing the surrogacy arrangement discussed by the aforementioned interviewer. A car chase in which Chidducks' two goons (Diggs and Nicky Katt) clearly spoof the O.J. Simpson low-speed chase is handled so subtly that until you see the two men handling an automobile like a Razor scooter, you aren't aware what's going on.

The idea of surrogate motherhood is kind of skeevey in the first place; and certainly the one depicted here is scuzzier than most. McQuarrie has fun with using the camera to demonstrate the monstrousness of Chidducks (Scott Wilson) and his trophy blond wife Francesca (Kristin Lehman). Lehman looks at first glance like just another of those lookalike Hollywood blonds, but McQuarrie consistently photographs her against a black background -- a wall, a sofa, a dress. In one shot, in which we seem to be on the inside of a TV monitor showing her surrogate child in utero in an ultrasound video, her oval face is bathed in a kind of James Cameron blue, her face a bizarre blend of fascination and malevolence. Looking at these people, compared with the slatternly Robin, could make you sympathize with Mary Beth Whitehead.

Yes, WAY OF THE GUN owes a debt to PULP FICTION; but perhaps even more of a debt to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, right down to the final shootout in Mexico. And if McQuarrie's final plot twist doesn't have quite the same "Gotcha" effect that grabs the viewer when Kevin Spacey rolls his pantlegs down at the end of THE USUAL SUSPECTS, well, those of you who enjoy watching surgery or watching someone pull broken glass out of his arm -- or even doing plot predictions -- ought to have a good old time.


THE WAY OF THE GUN official site

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.



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