Two hoods named Longbaugh and Parker (Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe) are sitting around the old sperm-donor center one afternoon when they get wind of a sweet deal involving a surrogate mother that, with the help of a little kidnapping, could set them up for that last big score all movie criminals dream of. Soon they are wearing stocking masks and confidently pointing guns at pregnant Robin (a hagged-out Juliette Lewis); moments later they’re on the run — leaving behind a parking lot full of bodies, their rear-view mirror crowded with pursuing gangsters. Robin, you see, is carrying the baby of an old mob-connected tycoon named Chidduck (Scott Wilson) who is desperate for an heir. This story, then, is as much about the quest for immortality as it is about the pursuit of the perfect crime.

The beauty of director Christopher McQuarrie‘s uneven first film is the near-complete absence of cops (or any other authority figures) on its desert landscape. McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects and had a hand in X-Men, has created a disfigured Manichean world in which only declensions of darkness exist. Or rather, perhaps, he has re-created such a world, because it seems awfully familiar, from the old-school tough guy, Joe Sarno (played by James Caan), to the Butch Cassidy–Sundance Kid posturings of Longbaugh and Parker. (Their names happen to be those of the real-life Western’s outlaws — I suppose the only reason McQuarrie didn‘t simply call them “Redford” and “Newman” was to maintain his film’s obsidian tone.)

The Way of the Gun isn‘t a bad film, but as we watch it we’re constantly rewriting it in our minds to make it a better one. Do we really need two scenes in which a critical conversation happens to be overheard by an eavesdropper? Is it necessary to have another cactus noir full of philosophical criminals (these hoods don‘t merely talk to God; they seem to be on a party line with Sartre as well) and a library of film references? (In one scene Del Toro lights two cigarettes, a la Now, Voyager — while he and a gas-station cashier watch Dirty Dancing on TV.) But the main problem is that McQuarrie is trying too hard to make a movie instead of just telling a story. Along the way we get lost: What exactly is Sarno’s relationship to Robin? Just what drove her doctor (Dylan Kussman) out of Baltimore? And why did McQuarrie set us up for a completely different film when, in the first scene, he had his two tough guys get pounded by a crowd of clubgoers?

Along with its SouthwesternMexican milieu (actually, Utah), the nicest thing to watch in Gun is Del Toro, whose sad-eyed smile and laconic gestures create a walking sigh as much as they do an antihero. As his partner, Phillippe — a wan, wispy presence who we never buy as a killer, baby-faced or otherwise — doesn‘t fair as well. Caan, appearing in one of those career-resuscitating roles that crime movies now set aside for aging male actors, seems almost stiff with arthritis. As often happens, though, it’s the anti-antiheroes whom we yearn to see more of — in this case, Chidduck‘s relentless hired guns, played by Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt. Such pairings occupy an almost iconographic niche in noir, often being portrayed as homicidal homosexuals, as in The Big Combo’s Mingo and Fante, or The Big Sleep‘s Sidney and Pete. Here, Jeffers and Obecks are straight — although they are practically two characters in the same silk suit (contrasting nicely with Caan’s Members Only jacket), killers who finish one another‘s sentences.

Powered by Joe Kraemer’s somber, Rosza–like score, Gun works best when its characters and their cars are posed against cinnamon-rock backdrops, their cell phones ever out of range of the world back home, as well as in gunfight scenes resounding with metallic reports. The action scenes, in fact, are among the recent best in the genre, revealing men who are slaves to the mechanics of their guns and who seem to derive only a stoic sadness from their bloody victories. Unfortunately, McQuarrie appears to be already enslaved by the kind of moviemaking conventions that allow semiliterate thugs to burble lysergically aphoristic repartee, and require that any time Robin pats her distended tummy the scene slows to a cloying halt. In this environment, even the jagged speech of hoods becomes baby talk.

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