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The Unusual Suspects

Filmmaker lets the audience judge who's good and bad in the compellingly vague Way of the Gun

This is the beginning of The Way of the Gun you will not see, because it was written but never filmed: Two men, Parker and Longbaugh, urinate in an open grave in front of mourners, beat up a priest, steal organs meant for transplant and shoot a dog. The introduction was to be shot in the style of a Michael Bay picture -- all technique, no point to any of it. The introduction was intended to look like a trailer, a sneak peek at The Adventures of Parker and Longbaugh, and it was to end with a hand ripping a red filter off the lens, revealing a bleak, bland Midwestern "reality" after all the razzle and dazzle. But writer-director Christopher McQuarrie thought better of including the intro. He figured it was just better to leave the hackwork to the hacks.

All that remains of the written introduction is the film's opening scene, set in a club's parking lot. The Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" blares on the soundtrack until it suddenly stops, giving way to the sound of a car alarm: Parker (Ryan Phillippe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), lazily shooting the breeze, have made themselves comfortable on someone else's hood. A frizzy-haired freak shouts at the two to get off his car, but it's the man's girlfriend who calls the duo out for a fight. But they need no provocation. With that, a parking-lot brawl ensues, the Stones reappear (cranked up louder then before), and Parker and Longbaugh are left beaten and bloodied on the cement. Then the opening credits roll.

If the opener is a shotgun blast, what follows is the echo and the satisfying ache in the shoulder: McQuarrie, who won an Academy Award in 1995 for his screenplay of The Usual Suspects, has penned a script this time out that is all blank spaces. His characters barely speak to one another, exchanging glances and shrugs instead of lines of dialogue. Where The Usual Suspects was one big brilliant put-on, The Way of the Gun allows the audience to make up the story, to fill in the gaps. We're given the barest of essentials -- ambiguous characters, desert settings, bang-bang action -- but motivations remain buried, hinted at but seldom revealed. If The Usual Suspects is all plot, a winding road map on the printed page, then The Way of the Gun takes place between the lines.

Straight shooters: Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro pull the trigger on the year's best movie - so far.
John Baer
Straight shooters: Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro pull the trigger on the year's best movie - so far.

On the surface, it's a familiar story: Parker and Longbaugh are two career cons looking for the fortune that has been looking for them. The duo travels from here to nowhere, picking up spare change along the road. Early on, they make a deposit in a sperm bank where they overhear a receptionist talking about a woman who's carrying the baby of a wealthy couple unable to have their own. Parker and Longbaugh are thus properly motivated; they set out to kidnap the girl, Robin (Juliette Lewis), and hold her for ransom. When their plan goes bad, Parker calls Robin's doctor, Allen Painter (Dylan Kussman), for help -- against Longbaugh's protests.

But their simple plan crumbles when Painter tells them who they're messing with: The "father" of Robin's child is a man named Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson), who "makes his living collecting other people's garbage." He either doesn't know or doesn't care that his pretty young wife, Francesca (Kristin Lehman), is carrying on an affair with one of Robin's bodyguards. But Hale will not allow two thugs to kidnap his child, the sole object of his desire. He calls on old friend Joe Sarno (James Caan) to deliver the money, kill Parker and Longbaugh, and return his child. Robin, it turns out, is a moot point -- to Hale, at least. Finally, the film builds toward not a climax but a clusterfuck: It's The Wild Bunch played for sick, smart grins.

The Way of the Gun takes place beneath the surface; people are not who they seem. But this film is no Usual Suspects, because there is no twist, no "gotcha." Instead, McQuarrie's a plot tease. We learn Dr. Painter committed some gruesome act in Baltimore, but we never learn what. There's nothing McQuarrie could tell us that will top what we think Painter did, so we can never judge him. His actions suggest a "good guy," while his secret past hints at the very bad guy within.

But there are no good or bad guys in The Way of the Gun; everyone is covered in a dingy shade of gray, and the "wrong" people suffer the consequences. McQuarrie gives the audience final power: We judge, condemn, sympathize, like and loathe without being told who to root for. Had The Way of the Gun been produced by someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, or directed by Bay, Parker and Longbaugh would have been smart-alecky villains-as-heroes. They would either pay for their crimes or skip off into the sunset, rich and free, but McQuarrie digs up that third option, and the movie has a more fulfilling finale for it.

McQuarrie feels no need to dash toward the inevitable, bloody finale; he paces himself until the silences bear as much weight as the words. There's no reason for Longbaugh and Sarno to have a drink and a smoke in a dumpy Mexican bar, but it's there nonetheless -- a long scene, in which bad men talk about their sad lives like bored businessmen at happy hour. For a moment, you will think nothing's happening, and you may be right, but you will not want it to end. Sometimes when a guy says nothing, he's telling you everything.

 
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