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The Way of the Gun

The Very Ordinary Suspects

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie

With Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis, James Caan, Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt

Rated R for strong violence/gore and language

The Usual Suspects, written by Christopher McQuarrie, is a great film -- but it becomes great only toward the end (or on second viewing), in time for one of the most spectacularly twisted endings in recent cinema. The first hour, which simply functions as a setup, is merely watchable: if not for the underlying tension which comes from knowing the ending or at least knowing there is something about the ending, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this extended setup.

The Way of the Gun is not only written by McQuarrie; it’s also directed by him -- and this is most likely the reason why it feels so flabby. As with Suspects, the bulk of this movie is a setup. (I’m eluding the usual plot summary, since most of the narrative momentum of this movie depends entirely on the viewers knowing as little as possible about it; suffice it to say that this is a crime story with a whole lot of gunfire and blood and moral ambiguity.)

It is high-minded and noble to spend something like half of the movie establishing characters and personalities; only here it does not work. The crime movie genre virtually demands a rapid pace; while Bryan Singer, the Suspects director, infused even the conversational scenes with crackling energy, McQuarrie himself seems to be entirely too much enamored of his own dialogue to realize that stringing along half a dozen expository scenes might be a bit too much.

It also matters that, in contrast to Kevin Spacey’s singular turn at the heart of McQuarrie’s first movie, here we have Ryan Phillippe. Phillippe does seem to go for edgy projects, seemingly trying to shake off his pretty boy image. Unfortunately, his acting abilities are virtually nil: the only emotion he manages to convey is physical pain. His monologues about God (which seem to be this movie’s raison d’Être) fall utterly flat, and when by the end I realized that I was actually supposed to care about this character, it was entirely too little, too late.

The rest of the actors are handicapped in another way: Del Toro, Lewis, Diggs, and Katt all can be very good -- only here the story depends so much on plot twists (most of them quite predictable), that they are forced to act reticent.

One singular (and great) exception is James Caan, and he is spectacular. Caan takes a major gamble here by beginning to shade his character in subtle detail and gradually proceeding to broader strokes; by the end, his performance is almost comical. Scene-stealing throughout, Caan is the only one who creates a complete -- and fascinating -- character.

McQuarrie’s direction is also a mixed bag. He clearly knows a whole lot about movies, and his direction is vivid and assured, using strong geometrical shapes to fill up the screen, while subverting Hollywood clichÉs. In particular, the first and the last twenty minutes are absolutely thrilling, superbly choreographed gun battles evoking the mood of grand old westerns.

It is the middle hour that drags, and it drags badly. There are so many turgid secrets and subtle malice and subdued conversation that they all start to feel like one. It certainly does not help that all these scenes are directed like one -- with almost whispered dialogue, and green-tinted night-time cinematography, and the general atmosphere of palpable unease, which so easily turns into boredom.

In this way, strangely enough, McQuarrie’s film strongly reminded me of Bryan Singer’s last film. Both The Way of the Gun and X-Men have just what I ask for in most films: characters and moral complexity. And yet here these are just the things that keep getting in the way of the real meat of the story.