NOBODY'S TOO SMART in pulp fiction. The old crime novels have given way to Tom Clancy-style techno thrillers, whose brainy heroes program computers and disarm nuclear bombs. That's why the simpler, more colorful characters of Elmore Leonard, Mickey Spillane, and Jim Thompson hold such fascination for today's young Tarantino generation of filmmakers. Christopher McQuarrie and Bryan Singer won an Oscar for their smartened-up 1995 pulp nouveau The Usual Suspects, and now McQuarrie has directed his first picture with a similar couple of lowlifes at its center.
Gun's basic plot is a kidnapping-gone-wrong initiated by two goons, Parker (Ryan Phillippe of 54) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro of Usual Suspects). It's familiar territory, reminiscent of 1990's After Dark, My Sweet, where the partners' solidarity is threatened by one going soft on the kidnapee—in this case a very pregnant surrogate mother (underutilized Juliette Lewis) employed by a very rich but very crooked Southwestern businessman. Security agents employed by the latter vainly attempt to thwart the kidnapping, after which the Old Pro is called in: a throwback tough given to using "to wit" in his speeches (James Caan, ever more ripely past his expiration date).
THE WAY OF THE GUN
written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie with Juliette Lewis, James Caan, Ryan Phillippe, and Benicio Del Toro opens September 8 at Factoria, Meridian 16, Oak Tree, and others
However, the tension of the crime, pursuit, and pregnancy are secondary to McQuarrie's interest in determinism and free will, expressed in Parker's incongruous voice-overs. "There is a natural order," he opines, declaring that he and Longbaugh are knowingly "off the path"—willfully doomed by their scheme. Such philosophical self-awareness doesn't square with their scuzzy, dim bulb characters; unlike Tarantino's world, where thugs are dumb but funny, Gun's goons ultimately bore us with their thick-tongued grandiloquence.
Teasing out the plot does provide some satisfaction, however, as a web of conflicting interests, agendas, and connections creates double cross upon double cross. Somewhere there's a good movie straining to get out (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with guns), but it's lost in the final fusillade of bullets, where the speed of magazine changes supplies the only drama.
A SEATTLE RESIDENT, the friendly, articulate McQuarrie says of Gun that "each character is paying for something that they've done and thought they could get away with." This sense of doom and foreboding under- lies the simple crime story, he explains. "You have to cram your philosophy into whatever corners you can." The lesson of Caan's character is to "keep your eyes open and your mind shut," he adds, while "Parker is undone because he starts to think, he starts to consider the consequences of his actions."
Having endured the frustrations of directing his first movie, does he plan to do so again? "Absolutely, in a second! Knowing now that I don't know anything about it," he laughs, "I feel like I'm much better prepared for the job."