Way off base

Way of the Gun a crime caper that falls flat

?Opens Sept. 8?

With its blind alleys, red herrings and double-bluffs, The Usual Suspects offered a brilliant deconstruction of the crime drama. It has so many labyrinthine twists, in fact, that now one suspects the film of artfully concealing the limitations of director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie. McQuarrie's Oscar for the film was richly deserved, but his and Singer's subsequent work has failed to measure up. Singer helmed the justly ignored thriller Apt Pupil and the imaginative but sloppily executed X-Men. McQuarrie has now taken the director's chair for The Way of the Gun, an existential caper flick that substitutes gore and posturing for dramatic credibility.

The first 20 minutes or so of Way of the Gun are promisingly provocative. The Rolling Stones' "Rip This Joint" blares outside an L.A. rock club, underscoring a confrontation between big-mouthed partyers and two small-time hoods named Parker (Ryan Phillipe) and Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro). An aria of blistering profanity leads to a joyously ungentlemanly brawl, priming the audience for a level of pulp entertainment that the film rarely reaches again.

The partners scrape by on nickel-and-dime crimes and occasionally donating their sperm to a fertility clinic, needling the interviewer for kicks. While in the waiting room, however, they hear about Robin (Juliette Lewis), a surrogate mother who stands to earn a cool million for carrying a child to term. There they conceive of a uniquely risky kidnapping.

The hospital stick-up and getaway are exciting, well-constructed sequences, with the pair pitted against Robin's intimidating, merciless bodyguards (Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt). Shoot-outs take place deafeningly off-camera, castanets play on the soundtrack and car chases become cat-and-mouse matches.

After the escape, though, Gun loses its way. McQuarrie's attention shifts to the family employing Robin, which includes a middle-aged husband who keeps books for organized crime, his restless trophy wife and a son, who happens to be her obstetrician. They bring enough sordid baggage for an Aaron Spelling series (or at least a couple of Greek tragedies), but except for Diggs' chilly stoicism, they're all unmemorably played. McQuarrie doesn't care much about them as characters, which was also true for Suspect's rogue's gallery, but that film's intricate storytelling and gift of gab could compensate.

Managing the crisis for the mobbed-up family is James Caan's veteran "bag man," a veteran fixer wont to coin lines like, "I can promise you a day of reckoning that you will not live long enough to never forget!" When Caan takes meaty roles in indie movies, such as his shady businessman in Bottle Rocket, he seems impatient, as if he's just waiting around for his John Travolta comeback to kick in. He conveys little of the gravity and focus that, say, Harvey Keitel brings to similar parts, and he has tight, uncomfortable body language, as if suffering from whiplash.

The leads are ultimately upstaged by all the other business, with the most vivid impressions being left by Phillipe's scuzzy beard and Del Toro's bleary, raccoon-like eyes. Del Toro, whose career high was his mumbly turn in Suspects, is a natural at affectless anomie, but is that anything to get excited about? Cruel Intentions' Phillipe here has a pinched-larynx, Ratso Rizzo sort of voice, making narration like, "There is a natural order to things," sound even more portentous than it is.

I discovered after the fact that Parker and Longbaugh are the real names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which comes as no surprise. Though Way has the gunplay and macho posturing of modern film noir, McQuarrie is most interested in revisionist westerns, with an early scene taking place in Monument Valley. It builds to a shoot-out at a Mexican bordello with the twosome fending off Caan and a posse of middle-aged hitmen, while Robin suffers through a Cesarean section performed grotesquely in a squalid bedroom.

McQuarrie would most like the film's resolution to pack the punch of the climax of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. But though the stand-offs are efficiently shot and edited, it's hard to see how the film could have ended differently if Parker and Longbaugh had not intervened. The Way of the Gun has some serious issues with females, pregnant or otherwise (a woman gets punched in the face in the first scene), although Lewis, uncharacteristically reined-in, gives Robin what dignity and sensitivity she can.

The Way of the Gun has some inventive touches, such as the kidnappers use of the ultrasound video as a ransom "note" and the presence of weathered character actor Geoffrey Lewis, whom we first see playing Russian Roulette with multiple handguns. But the most authentic detail comes from the sporadically useful cell phones the characters deal with. Otherwise, The Way of the Gun's "cool" bloodshed and would-be weighty dialogue falls flat, proving to be merely business as usual.