How depressing. The directorial debut of Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the smart, snappy screenplay for "The Usual Suspects," was supposed to be a bright spot on an otherwise bleak cinematic horizon.
Instead, it turns out that "The Way of the Gun" is as ugly, excessive and vulgar as "The Usual Suspects" was stylish, subtle and suave. Taking one page each from Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Robert Towne and Quentin Tarantino, McQuarrie has emerged not with a movie of his own but with a derivative, overheated pastiche of a myriad cinematic cliches. The one twist he has introduced - a fetus whose delivery by Caesarean section during a shootout is the movie's climax - is as howlingly improbable as it is distasteful.
Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro play two scamsters who are introduced in the opening scene during a flurry of gratuitous obscenities. The sequence is fair warning to filmgoers of squeamish - or even merely humane - sensibilities to hie themselves to the nearest exit. The pair makes extra money by donating their dubious genetic material to sperm banks, and during one appointment they overhear a conversation that leads to their next scheme: kidnapping the surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis) of a rich couple and holding her and the unborn baby hostage until they pay up.
The plan leads to a complicated skein of double-crosses, triple-crosses and secret relationships, each more venal and contrived than the last.
Among a lackluster cast, Lewis' performance is particularly graceless. Her portrayal of a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy libels the countless women who have reached parturition without waddling, heaving and groaning so unattractively.
As the man whose offspring she's carrying, Scott Wilson is as slimy a villain as Noah Cross, with none of his sordid intelligence.
At a recent screening, dolly tracks and boom microphones were clearly visible in a number of scenes, suggesting that McQuarrie may need to work on his framing.
But far more troubling than technical deficiencies is the cynicism of "The Way of the Gun," which trots out the cliches of gratuitous violence and nihilism without considering them in a fresh or critical way.
More disturbing still is McQuarrie's use of the fetus, which here is reduced by turns to a fetish and a gimmicky MacGuffin.
He wants us to think there's a heart beating somewhere under all that gore because he saves a baby in his movie, but there's something decidedly creepy about putting it there in the first place.
'The Way of the Gun'
Starring Ryan Phillippe, Benicio Del Toro, Juliette Lewis, James Caan
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Rated R (strong violence/gore, language and some sexuality)
Running time 119 minutes
Released by Artisan Entertainment
Sun score: *