For a while, modern audiences seem to think that the crime drama was created by Quentin Tarantino, or, at the very least, he refined it. And for a long while, his Pulp Fiction influence could be felt on everything—The Big Hit, the theatrical version of Payback, name any half-serious story about men with guns who love to talk as much as shoot, and you’ll see the Reservoir Dogs stamp on them, for good or ill. But what some people don’t realize—or even understand when Tarantino has insisted himself—that the crime/adventure/black comedy predates him by a good long time. While the “Tarantino” genre is more steeped in ‘70s exploitation than it is hardboiled films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the amoral tough-guy-with-a-gun-and-his-own-code is nearly as old as cinema itself. At the very least, the rules were written in post-WWII Hollywood when the pot-boiler was all the rage, even though we still weren’t allowed to root for the anti-hero back then, thanks to the Hays Code.
In fiction, few wrote tough-guy stories with a harder shell than Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, with his “Parker” novels. A grim, cold-blooded career criminal, Parker was the manliest anti-hero to grace popular culture in a long time. To date, Westlake’s novel The Hunter has been adapted for screen twice—Point Blank with Lee Marvin and the aforementioned Payback with Mel Gibson (albeit closer to the tone of the book in director Brian Helgeland’s original cut)—and influenced a goodly number of others. But it seems nearly impossible to capture the sheer underworld amorality for the screen and have audiences react favorably. Moviegoers like a hero. Even if he does scuzzy things, shoots people, beats up women, he still has to have some level of likability. On the page, Parker isn’t likable, nor does he want to be. Nor does he care if you hate him, are indifferent to him, or barely notice he’s there—so long as you’re not in his way.
In 1995, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for an offbeat and twisty little thriller called The Usual Suspects. A movie boiled medium-hard, it garnered a well-deserved following and injected the name “Keyser Soze” into our vernacular. Following that, McQuarrie couldn’t get arrested in Hollywood.
Adverse to being pigeonholed as a “crime guy” he finally gave in and took his friend and Suspects actor Benicio Del Toro’s advice to pen another hardboiled movie because studios not only dug those things but tended to leave the director alone provided the production stayed within budget. But McQuarrie was bitter towards Hollywood and decided to play a nasty trick on the studio that picked him up. He wrote the meanest, nastiest story about the hardest-boiled criminals to walk the streets. His anti-heroes could just as well drop the pretense and adopt the role of villain. In his opinion, what was the point of writing about criminals if you were just going to portray them as little more but wayward nonconformists?
So it’s no surprise that, when released in 2000, The Way of the Gun wound up on nobody’s Top Ten List. There’s no amiable banter in the movie and certainly nobody dances as Jack-Rabbit Slim’s. The main characters of the movie, Parker and Longbaugh (nicknamed after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (aka Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longbaugh respectively) and not from Westlake’s character, though the parallels remain), are decidedly not nice. Introduced before the main credits, they’re seen wasting time in a parking lot, leaning against a car. When they’re harassed by the car’s owner and his foul-mouthed girlfriend, the first course of action they take is to punch out the woman. They’re besieged by the outraged crowd and beaten down but they wind up laughing at their own defeat. These guys are losers, pure and simple, but they’re not guys to be fucked with.
Drifting from town to town, committing crime and larceny for survival, the pair wind up in a fertility clinic and sperm bank, hoping to rub out enough for a hotel room and a meal. Overhearing that one of the clinic’s patients is a surrogate for a rich and powerful but childless couple, and that her million-dollar pay day is due on arrival in just a few days. With practiced and almost military precision, the pair kidnap the young mother-for-hire and ease their way out of the building, keeping her armed body guards at bay.
This, of course, sits not at all with the powerful father and his equally-powerful and shadier friends, particularly the underworld-savvy Sarno. Tracking the kidnappers down, he first tries to pay them off but Longbaugh doesn’t bite. Sarno tries to reason with him—they’re both older guys, not like the younger, hotheaded Parker, so they both understand how the world works and how things can get worse for everyone. For whatever reason, Longbaugh opts for worse. The plot drags the viewer over broken glass towards a climax in a Mexican town right out of The Wild Bunch. The final act involves brutal torture, a bloody gun-point caesarian section and a violent shoot-out between the pair of two-bit hoods and Sarno’s aged, and therefore very experienced, bagmen. A happy ending can’t be seen for miles, not even for the survivors.
Filled to overflowing with terrific actors, The Way of the Gun possesses an impressive pedigree. You not only get Del Toro as Longbaugh and James Caan as Sarno, but Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt as the bodyguards, and the great Geoffrey Lewis (The Devil’s Rejects) as Sarno’s suicidal gunsal who proves to be one of the toughest eggs in the film. On the downside you also have a glum Ryan Phillippe with his mouthful of marbles delivery and the dog-whistle-voiced Juliette Lewis, who nonetheless evokes sympathy as the desperate pregnant woman.
But if you’re looking for someone to root for, good luck. Not only does every character in the film have his or her own agenda but they come with closest stuffed full of more skeletons than a Romanian necropolis. The closest you get to a traditional hero comes in the form of Lewis’ gynecologist, Dr. Painter, played by Dylan Kussman, who spends the majority of the film terrified—and who has a few things in his own past that are fairly ill-advised. From a narrative point of view, The Way of the Gun is a cinematic ass-kicking, and not in a “kick-ass” sense. The action is exciting and the tension builds nearly to the point where you can’t take it any more.
Miraculously, the script is so tightly-written and the characters so perfectly played that you can’t quite hate anyone in the film. Which isn’t to say you ever like anyone either. Casting actors at the crest of middle age (and careening down the other side) as the experienced mobsters was a wise move on McQuarrie’s part—how tough do you have to be to make it to that age in this particular business? Pretty fucking tough, that’s how tough!
While the movie gives you no one to root for, it hands you no one to root against either. By making both sides cold and misanthropic, The Way of the Gun plays out on neutral ground. Lewis’s character is so vulnerable, trapped in such an unwinnable situation, you don’t care who wins, so long as it ends and she and the baby are out of the middle.
Marketed as another action-charged black comedy, with commercials of Phillippe and Del Toro changing places as they drive, momentary snippets of dialogue that can be humorous when out of context, and lots of guns firing to a borrowed score (Joe Kraemer’s music is as moody and indifferent as the characters), audiences were appalled at the movie they got. Expecting a scrimmage game, they got a dog fight. Not what they bought at all.
By no means light entertainment, if you’re in the mood for a tough guy movie, noir doesn’t get any darker than The Way of the Gun, despite it’s sunny locations and bright photography. It’s a gritty, ugly experience that will stick with you for a good long while. Watch it back-to-back with some over-the-top action nonsense and think about these characters as the digital explosions and Dolby Digital audio something like Terminator: Salvation toss you around the room. You’ll wonder if the human race is really worth saving.