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20 Years Later: The Way of the Gun

4 September 20 words: George White

Screen Co-Editor George White takes a look at Christopher McQuarrie's directorial debut, 20 years after its release...

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis
Running time: 119 minutes

The Way of the Gun follows two shifty criminals as they kidnap the surrogate mother of a wealthy business mogul, demanding $15 million for her return. An interesting premise, perhaps, but pacing issues and an ineffective script limit the potential of this action-thriller to a frustrating degree, leading to a slow and often tedious couple of hours.

One thing that’s certain about this movie is that it has not aged well. From the off, the film spouts explicit ableist and homophobic slurs in an attempt to shock the audience - with writer-director Christopher McQuarrie desperately trying to establish the lead characters as tough, carefree drifters within the first (completely inconsequential) few scenes.

In doing so, however, McQuarrie manages to make both Mr Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Harold Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro) completely detestable, to the point where it is nearly impossible to care about their story. By the time Phillippe’s Parker has some semblance of character development, he has already become irredeemable in the viewer’s eyes, any attempt to elicit empathy or even mere interest in his thoughts and emotions falling flat.

The central duo butt heads with Scott Wilson’s Hale Chidduck, a corrupt businessman known for his dodgy dealings, ultimately leading to a tale of evil vs evil. While this can sometimes be an interesting dynamic to explore, McQuarrie fails to offer any reason to support either side, making it difficult to remain engrossed in a story that offers no stakes.

What could have been a gripping, fast-paced thriller sinks into a laborious grind

At two hours long, the film also drags on far longer than it needs to. Too often scenes are fleshed out more extensively than is warranted, with bouts of potentially exciting action being disrupted by disengaging dialogue. This is particularly disappointing because the premise of the story is undoubtedly an intriguing one, littered with interesting twists and unpredictable turns, but pacing issues fail to absorb the audience for the full runtime. 

Despite the story failing to impress, though, McQuarrie deserves credit for his delightful camerawork, especially considering this is his directorial debut. Through his collaboration with cinematographer Dick Pope, The Way of the Gun successfully channels the aesthetic feel of old westerns, often making it feel as though you are watching a spaghetti western set in the modern day. 

There are some solid performances in there, too, despite the weak script, with Del Toro in particular managing to deliver his usual combination of charm and deviousness. Wilson deserves credit for adding depth to what could have been a very one-dimensional villain, and Juliette Lewis does well to avoid simply filling the role of damsel-in-distress. 

Sadly, though, it is hard not to feel that these performances are wasted in a frustratingly underwhelming film. What could have been a gripping, fast-paced thriller sinks into a laborious grind, with pacing issues dampening the excitement far too frequently. McQuarrie certainly shows potential in his first feature film, but the quality of his work here is barely a scratch on what he has achieved in the years since. 

Did you know? Christopher McQuarrie's brother, a United States Navy SEAL, was the technical advisor for the gunfight scenes, hence the realism of the coordinated movements, use of cover, and room-clearing tactics used by Parker and Longbaugh.

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