Tough guys -- real, honest-to-goodness descendants of the nihilistic characters who peopled the classics of film noir -- have been absent from the screen for far too long. And they've been sorely missed.
They've been replaced by comic bumblers or criminals who (like Christopher Eccleston's evil stolen-car broker in Gone in 60 Seconds or Robert De Niro's Mafia boss in last year's Analyze This) are too over-the-top to be feared. Tough-guy talk, too, has been sadly out of action, sidelined by dialogue intended to be played for laughs. Even the ferocity of Jeffrey Wright's otherwise marvelous Latino crime lord in Shaft was undercut by the actor's marble-mouthed, exaggerated delivery.
"The Way of the Gun," the directorial debut from "The Usual Suspects" screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, puts a bullet or two (OK, make it a thousand) in that trend. It's a bloody, twisting road movie that's populated by oddballs, nearly none of whom are sympathetic in the least.
Heavy on the dark drama and staging multiple shootings in the light of the scorching afternoon sun, the film can be seen as a cross between the styles of Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah. But there's precious little of the former's quirky humor to lighten up the proceedings.
As is no surprise from McQuarrie, these folks talk the talk. "Anyone who would do business with me can't be trusted," says Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), a rich, money-laundering businessman with a long list of murderous associates, any of whom might betray their boss if the price is right. And here's Chidduck's longtime "laundry" clean-up specialist, the menacing Sarno (James Caan), waxing philosophical on the root of all evil: "$115 million is not money. It's a motive with a universal adapter."
That's the amount of cash demanded of Chidduck by brothers-in-crime Parker (Ryan Phillippe of Cruel Intentions) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro of "The Usual Suspects"). Earthy drifters with nothing to lose, the two men freely improvise a creaky plan to obtain loot they have no idea what they'll do with, but which they'll casually kill to gain. On a whim, they kidnap the pregnant, emotionally troubled Robin (Juliette Lewis), a well-paid surrogate mother for Chidduck and his sexy young wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman).
Here's the snag: The two bloodthirsty half-brains aren't aware of the power, influence and spidery connections held by Chidduck, an egotist who's perfectly willing to employ an army of assassins to guarantee the safety of his future child.
At its most basic level, "The Way of the Gun" is a glorified game of cat-and-mouse. Parker and Longbaugh initially elude Chidduck's most trusted point men, Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt), a pair of slick, suit-wearing schemers who fancy themselves as alternate-universe Secret Service agents. The professional bagmen aren't clever enough to outmaneuver the amateur criminals in tricky car chases that barrel through alleyways and other tight spaces.
As they race toward hoped-for freedom in Mexico, the outlaws have other worries to contend with, including an unstable hostage who complains of an impending medical crisis; a physician (Dylan Kussman) who's willing to risk his life for his patient; and Sarno, an experienced hit man whose quiet, threatening heart-to-heart with Longbaugh is one of the movie's most chilling scenes. The older crook, who may or may not be feigning a fatherly interest in his new acquaintance, warns of the dark abyss that awaits Longbaugh at the end of his road. Of course, it's to no avail.
Packed with gory confrontations and racking up a body count that's high enough for all but the most demanding crime-film connoisseur, "The Way of the Gun" benefits from a palpable sense of dread and impending doom. "Tell you the truth, I don't think this is a brains type of operation," Longbaugh tells Sarno during their meeting. Nor does their scheme allow much concern for the future. Guys like these don't plan far beyond their next one or two moves. And in their world, lack of foresight is a fatal flaw.