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Not the Usual Suspects

'Way of the Gun's' director takes characters to brutal extremes, for a reason.

September 07, 2000|DAVID CHUTE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie became a director in his own right, he was clear about at least one thing: He knew exactly what kind of movie he didn't want to make.

"I was obsessed with cinema's ability to completely skirt the consequences of any action," he says. "Contemporary filmmaking does not ever want to upset you. You can watch 'Independence Day' frame by frame--massive destruction and not a single dead body.

"You're never allowed to deal with death because this is a fun summer movie and they want to minimize the sense of loss and maximize the sense of pleasure. After I won the Oscar for the 'Usual Suspects' script, everyone expected me to direct a crime movie. So I said all right, but I'll do it the way I think it should be done, and if I do that, no one will ever ask me to do it again."

No one will ever accuse McQuarrie of trying to maximize anybody's sense of pleasure. There are moments in the crime movie he finally made, the ultra-hard-boiled kidnap drama "The Way of the Gun" (opening Friday), that seem calculated to be as brutally shocking and off-putting as possible. Some of the violence goes so far beyond the norm for an action movie that you'd swear the sequences were spliced in from a gothic horror show about the Spanish Inquisition. Even viewers who think they're tough enough for a typical post-Tarantino gunplay film are likely to be brought up short.

At the outset, though, "The Way of the Gun" seems to fit neatly into the new indie-thriller subgenre of photogenic Gen-X crooks who get in over their bloody heads. Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro play vagabond hoodlums in the Southwest who reach for the big payoff, kidnapping a surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) who is carrying a rich man's baby. What they don't realize, until it's way too late, is that the father isn't just a normal well-heeled macher, he's a Mafia banker, a money-laundering expert (played with a bone-deep sense of corruption by Scott Wilson) who has every motive in the world for disposing of the perpetrators with the assistance of some very scary hired muscle.

Intense scenes of gunplay and torture follow--not to mention a soon-to-be-infamous depiction of a C-section birth, performed, without benefit of anesthetic, on a rumpled bed in a seedy Mexican brothel.

The sheer gut-wrenching intensity of these scenes might be almost bearable if we had reliable, comforting central characters to root for, firmly grounded heroes to guide us through the maelstrom. But McQuarrie is intent upon never allowing us to get a firm grip on his protagonists. Are they hapless antiheroes, as they at first appear, or just villains like all the rest, as blackhearted as everybody else in the grim state-of-nature landscape of the movie?

McQuarrie warns us, in the first place, not to take anything the protagonists say about themselves at face value: "They are portrayed to us in the voice-over narration as a couple of guys who are just bumming around looking to make their fortune. But don't forget, it's Parker [Phillippe] himself who is saying that. Why should we believe him? What we come to realize is that there's a lot more going on here than he cares to tell us."

*

At times, McQuarrie exploits the habits we've acquired watching commercial action films to set us up for his strongest shocks. The kidnappers are initially portrayed as attractive and almost goofy, natural underdogs. They even seem to experience a sentimental change of heart, switching sides to rescue the captive girl from the even-badder bad guys. But instead of riding to the rescue with six-guns blazing, heedless of his own safety, Del Toro's Longbaugh finds a protected perch on a nearby hillside and begins coolly blowing people away with a sniper rifle, at one point shooting a Mexican police officer in the back, a double no-no for the "hero" of an action picture.

"The cinematographer, Dick Pope, reacted strongly to the sniper scene," McQuarrie says. "He said, 'You know, I like these guys, I've understood everything that they've done up until this point. But this I can't accept.' And I said, 'That's exactly why it's happening now, and that's exactly why we're leaving it in.' It's only as you begin to get invested in these people that I say, 'Guess what? You may have picked the wrong side. You only picked Parker and Longbaugh because one of them has the voice-over, and they look the coolest.' "

McQuarrie did have some real-life experience to draw on for his cinematic scenes of violence. He can vividly recall getting caught up in a grocery store robbery late one night in Berkeley. And he went nose to nose with gang members and drug dealers in his 20s, when he worked as a security guard at a movie theater in Sayreville, N.J., situations he defused, he says, by exploiting his unthreatening appearance.

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