Christopher McQuarrie, made famous for his The Usual Suspects screenplay, has been a busy man, writing a slew of upcoming big budget films, such as Jack Reacher, Jack the Giant Killer, The Wolverine, and even Top Gun 2, don’t ask me why. Jack Reacher will be his second directorial effort, the first being today’s film The Way of the Gun. Staring Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe, James Caan, and Juliette Lewis, to name a few, McQuarrie seems to capitalize on audiences’ positive response to his twist ending from The Usual Suspects by constructing a narrative which favors complexity over realism. Clearly inspired by Tarantino’s ability to compose a film out of intensely watchable individual scenes, McQuarrie forgets the former qualification, stripping what should have been a far more gripping and straightforward storyline down to a collection of specific character interactions. From there he uses any means necessary to invert the scenes, adding touches of flair and sometimes downright silliness in the hopes that he will hit on a future “classic” scene. I felt as though he was playing the odds, the way he overstuffed his screenplay. And yet this is a criticism I am more than happy to give, since its unrelenting ambition does make for an innovative experience, though it’s a pity he was unable capture Tarantino’s oddly natural dialogue which makes his characters so memorable.
The setup of the story is that Benicio and Phillippe (sporting a hilariously unrecognizable accent) are stoic mercenaries, able to communicate with barely a glance, who learn that Juliette Lewis is the surrogate mother for an incredibly wealthy couple and decide to kidnap her for ransom. Things get hairy when bagman James Caan, in one of his best performances I’ve seen, gets involved, along with two private security officers, one of whom (Taye Diggs) is sleeping with the wife of the wealthy husband. Juliette Lewis fills her role with her trademarked spunkiness, defending her unborn child with sweat, blood, and tears, and Taye Diggs moves with automaton effectiveness. Benicio Del Toro unsurprisingly turns in a phenomenal performance, straddling conflicting motivations with ease. The film is certainly clever, endlessly shifting motivations and relationships, but is at times too clever for its own good. At one point, Benico and Phillippe are keeping Juliette Lewis at a motel, and begin discussing the pros and cons of her abduction. McQuarrie for whatever reason thought that the scene needed some spicing up, so he has all three characters begin a game of hearts on the motel bed, making each move dripping with subtext. Benicio and Phillippe stare intensely at each other, obviously paralleling their explanation of the game’s mechanics to Juliette Lewis with their current situation. The scene is impossible to follow and needlessly convoluted, although I truly did welcome the effort throughout the film. There definitely were a couple of scenes which played out quite nicely, such as an excellent death scene at the end of the movie which takes place in a car. The film also does an excellent job showcasing the moral toll of the way of the gun, contrasting Juliette Lewis’ innocence with the cold detachment of the film’s killers on both sides of the law. There is a great use of objective vs. subjective filmmaking during a scene where the husband is on the phone at night, talking to James Caan about some of his shadier business investments. As the camera movies backwards down a hall, the husband remains in the frame and we can hear both sides of the phone conversation, but when the camera finally moves back into a bedroom where his wife is, and as soon as we see that she is eavesdropping in on her husband’s conversation, we cease to hear James Caan’s side of the conversation, since she wouldn’t have been able to.
The film essentially boils down to an elaborate exercise in writing, and in many ways the writing is top-notch, but it borders on the pretentious, too often removing the viewer’s emotional investment from the plot to focus on “see what I did there?” cleverness. There was a strong noir element throughout which I appreciated, and the final shootout was superbly well crafted. I believe that anyone who loves action movies will greatly enjoy this film, especially for the subtle ways it plays with the genre, but it remains a classic case of the whole not being greater than its parts. (C+/B-)
PS: Sarah Silverman of all people has a 2 minute cameo in the very beginning of the movie. Why, I have no idea. Perhaps McQuarrie wanted to utilize her gift of using expletives.