Intention Is Everything: Christopher McQuarrie’s ‘The Way of the Gun’

Christopher McQuarrie directs Ryan Phillippe on the set of The Way of the Gun. Photographed by John Baer © Artisan Entertainment, Aqaba Productions

Christopher McQuarrie’s directorial debut after his Oscar-winning screenplay success with The Usual Suspects (1995), The Way of the Gun (2000) is most often described as one of the best little action films you’ve never seen. A twisted tale of kidnap, scheming and plotting, where no-one gets out clean, and our heroes are two of the most unpleasant protagonists to ever vie for our sympathies, it’s McQuarrie’s attempt to get out of his system (a) how he then felt about working in Hollywood, and (b) everything he wanted to “get right” about violent men and the repercussions of their actions—no more Hollywood fetishized violence, no more badly executed gun drama. Pigeon-hole defying Ryan Philippe’s “Mr Parker” and Benicio del Toro’s “Mr Longbaugh” (the real-life names of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid) are two low-level criminals stumbling upon a big score in America’s dusty south-west who represented McQuarrie’s bucking against the system of just getting scripts read and approved. He told Den Of Geek, “I didn’t know how to play the game and, frankly, I didn’t want to. Parker and Longbaugh were a response to what I viewed as an oppressive and hypocritical industry.” Their aliases, along with the climactic locale, non-verbal shorthand communication and stylised speech, also suggest a western in all but time-frame. The castanet flavored main theme harks back to Mexico-set western The Professionals, though these guys are anything but that. McQuarrie told Nev Pierce how he felt about depicting violence on screen and how he attempted to rectify this in his script for The Way of the Gun: “You can’t be moral and ethical and be a filmmaker—you’re just fooling yourself, you’re just betraying yourself. But you can be moral and ethical in the way in which you present it. You can be creative… Ultimately, for me, if death has no meaning, if the violence has no meaning, it has no impact, then it’s morally wrong.” For Christopher McQuarrie, as much as his characters, “intention is everything.”

Parker and Longbaugh are two drifters not cut out to be wage slaves, not quite smart enough or motivated enough to make it big (“A pint of your blood can fetch fifty bucks. A shot of cum, three grand. You keep your life simple and you can literally self-sustain.”), who decide to kidnap a pregnant surrogate mother, Robin (Juliette Lewis). At the donor clinic they overhear she’s delivering for a rich couple and decide to kidnap her for ransom, aware she is heavily guarded at all times. What they don’t know is the employer/surrogate father is Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), a criminal money launderer, ruthless to boot. As the scheme unravels, more and more elements and motivations come into play from everyone involved, including the disgraced doctor who’s treating Robin, through to Chidduck’s care-worn older bagman, Joe Sarno (James Caan). As Parker drily remarks at one point, “The longest distance between two points is between a kidnapper and his money.” Whilst not exactly redeeming themselves in the end they come to realize that they may be the only chance for Robin and her baby to have a free life.

The notorious opening scene, where our “hero” Parker profanely abuses a guy’s girlfriend when she tells the protagonists to get the fuck off her boyfriend’s car, before choosing to knock her flat as an ugly crowd gathers for the inevitable ass-whooping they think is going to descend on them, is in my mind, a young writer’s wise-ass scene. True, it tells you these guys don’t give a damn for convention, they’ve carved their own path in life. A bad guy has to actually be a bad guy, right? It also derived from a real incident in McQuarrie’s youth, where someone really did punch out “the girlfriend”—if they were going to get beat up, they would “steal the victory.” Mordantly amusing as it is (Sarah Silverman, the bloody-nosed girl, and her boyfriend walk off as the crowd breaks up to approaching police sirens, while he proffers some solace—“You look as beautiful as ever!”), it doesn’t add that much to the narrative. The guys’ actions throughout and Phillippe’s narration adequately fill in the blanks of their “code.” The two of them have nothing to offer the world and know it. “We didn’t come for absolution; we didn’t ask to be redeemed. But isn’t that the way it is, every goddamn time.” Some of this is laid on pretty thick—I could actually do without the occasional voice-over, as the to and fro shorthand between Del Toro and Phillippe itself is excellent. The wordless exchange and pricking up of ears as they overhear the means to their big payoff for instance, Parker striding out to the phonebooth directory (remember them?) to get the doc’s number. Or the allusions to their cynical life path as the duo play hearts with Robin in a seedy Mexican motel, waiting for the initial money drop. “The object of Hearts is to play the safest game possible and finish with the least amount of points. A heart is the only thing of value. If you have one, get rid of it.” Robin sniffles and tells them the surrogacy was her idea but the embryo didn’t take, the baby is actually hers by natural means from another father. She grabs the faltering Parker’s hand and puts it on her belly. When she tries to do the same with Longbaugh, he tilts her face away from his eyes. “That’s creepy,” he states. He’s not so easily played.

 
McQuarrie attempts to put a fresh spin on many aspects of the crime drama, not least in the gunplay, but even more innovatively with a car chase after the duo spring Robin from her appointment. The whole actual kidnap sequence is brilliantly executed. McQuarrie’s brother Doug was a Navy SEAL and acted as technical/weapon advisor on the film, educating the actors in gun handling, room clearance, cover, and so on. As Robin, flanked by her bodyguards Jeffers (Taye Diggs) and Obecks (Nicky Katt), is tracked by the camera down a long corridor opening out to the reception area, we see Parker approach, gradually realizing he’s wearing a stocking mask. As he and the bodyguards approach each other, each of the bodyguards sweeping ahead of Robin and drawing like a couple of western cowboys, Longbaugh steps in from the side, holding a gun to Robin’s head and using her as cover. Amusingly, the kidnappers seek to remove the civilians from the equation (“Can’t you people see there are GUNS here?”). What the kidnappers don’t count on is the ruthlessness of the bodyguards’ protection of their employer’s investment—one silently draws a bead on that swollen belly, calling their bluff. Time to beat a retreat, as Parker and Longbaugh each cover the other with a back and forth instruction (“Move!” “Moving.”). The bodyguards pursue out the fire exit, instructing Robin to return to the doctor’s office, but she by now has bonded with her baby and attempts to flee, stumbling upon the aftermath of the firefight outside. There then follows a car chase in slow motion, as Parker and Longbaugh obey the speed limit, turning instead through various back alleys, drawing to a halt and letting the vehicle drift ahead with the pregnant quarry whilst they take cover, drawing their pursuers also out of their vehicle and back in on the backfoot until a final turn around a corner and reverse into the bodyguards car, totalling it (sensibly, they’ve taken Robin out of their vehicle beforehand.). Parker, again the weaker link, draws on the stunned men but fatally doesn’t waste them. Then again, without these characters, McQuarrie’s plot wouldn’t progress as intricately as it does. They later seek to pocket the ransom for themselves and eliminate both their quarry and Sarno, unwisely dismissing him as a has-been. Sarno, who carries himself with a deceptive quietude, neck and shoulder drawn up by puckered scar tissue from a bullet that almost had his name on it, counsels, “The only thing you can guess about a broken down old man is that he is a survivor.”

Doug McQuarrie also had a major influence over the climactic showdown in a seedy Mexican whorehouse in the middle of nowhere that must have been an old mission back in the day. The rearranged money-drop is to take place there, all the major players convening akin to the bloodbath at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. “It’s not the style, it’s the situation,” McQuarrie states on the DVD commentary. The director, his brother and staff drew up a map of the location, along with a model and storyboards, working everything out. Mark Bristol did the storyboards. He taught himself after buying the illustrated screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The director later worked with him on Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. McQuarrie asked Doug, “Now you’re Parker and Longbaugh (moving plastic cowboy and Indians across the board). When are you gonna go and get the money? Now you’re the bagmen. Where are you gonna go to get Parker and Longbaugh?”

The score by Joe Kraemer mixes electronic and acoustic music to interesting effect, especially in the third act. He had previously collaborated with McQuarrie, starting with a TV pilot called The Underworld, in 1997. The director hates temp scores, and the fact that he had to screen rough footage to the suits with no score exacerbated the scrutiny he was under. The aforementioned western The Professionals was a McQuarrie favorite and Kraemer added a flavor of its theme to the main title. As to the scenes involving Robin’s delivery, “the location was such a nightmarish setting that I used some electronic textures to help make the music creepy and unsettling.”

 
The film is very droll, by the way, as well as being unflinchingly violent. Parker and Longbaugh have abandoned the by now giving birth Robin to the ministrations of Doctor Painter (Dylan Kussman), actually the baby’s father, and son of Chidduck. Turns out Robin is also Sarno’s daughter, and entered into her agreement with the Chidducks to set him up/bail him out of his criminal lifestyle. After witnessing the doc attempt to deliver the baby by gunpoint from Jeffers, who he kills by reaching for a handgun hidden in his medical kit, Longbaugh takes a long look at Robin and declares, “She’s had enough.” Even he has his moral limits. Our protagonists retire briefly to the bar where they earlier sent the whores on their way (Del Toro adlibbing a cheeky slap to a buttock) to ponder their next move. With the money bags deposited in the dried up courtyard fountain framed by an archway, Longbaugh wryly observes, “There’s always free cheese in a mousetrap.” At this point the film feels like a nod to their aliases’ final freeze frame, extended into full-frame shoot-out action. Parker will later get a nasty surprise as he takes a dive into the fountain, landing on a pile of busted glass. McQuarrie mostly kept a careful eye on ammo counts. Sarno, ever old school, attempts to fire on his quarry from the shuttered windows with a revolver. A nice touch is that when the hurly burly’s done, he pats various pockets, coming up empty, but the job is done anyway. The kidnappers lie maimed and bleeding out, as he, Robin and Painter gather the money and leave in a pre-arranged ambulance. Parker and Longbaugh “don’t want your forgiveness. We won’t make excuses. We’re not gonna blame you, even if you are an accessory… But we will not accept your natural order. We didn’t come for absolution, we didn’t ask to be redeemed. But isn’t that how it is, every goddamn time… Your prayers are always answered, in the order they’re received…”

McQuarrie reflected on his experience with the film to Nev Pierce: “It was a learning experience and a means to an end… It’s the movie I wish I could do over again: I wish I could take that basic concept and make that as a film again with everything that I’ve learned… If only because it was the last truly original idea that I worked with. The Way of the Gun I wrote in five days. It didn’t change very much. But I shot it in a very stark way and didn’t leave myself room to manipulate. I would never shoot a movie like that again. I would shoot for that: I like masters and I like when a scene plays out. But you have to be able to control the rhythm and the tempo of the movie. And the movie’s done in a way that you could never control. I killed it. So, on the one hand, I’m very proud of it. On the other hand, I’m very grateful for everything that I learned from it.”

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 

There is a natural order. The way things are meant to be. An order that says that the good guys always win, that you die when it’s your time, or when you have it coming. The ending is always happy, if only for someone else. Now at some point it became clear to us that our path had been chosen and we had nothing to offer the world, our options narrowing down to petty crime or minimum wage. So we stepped off the path and went looking for the fortune that we knew was looking for us. —Ryan Phillippe, The Way Of The Gun

 
Screenwriter must-read: Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay for The Way of the Gun [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Photo credit: John Baer © Artisan Entertainment, Aqaba Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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