For Christopher McQuarrie, even an Oscar for Best Screenplay cut little ice with Hollywood studios. Denied creative control on new projects, he wrote a crime movie at the urging of Benecio del Toro, a veteran of The Usual Suspects. This script would not be designed to attract major studios, but almost to repel them. Remarkably, McQuarrie was able to make it, his first film as director.
As a starting point for what would become The Way of the Gun, McQuarrie made a list of "every taboo, everything [...] a cowardly executive would refuse to accept". Instead of traditional leading men, he created "Parker" (Ryan Philippe) and "Longbaugh" (del Toro) a pair of cruel and desperate outlaws living off the grid. McQuarrie's interest was in building characters who are not "traditionally sympathic", but this proved to be an understatement.
Within the film's opening minutes, these opportunistic gunmen instigate a bar fight by attacking two women and plan the daylight kidnapping of an expectant mother. They may sometimes be professional and even ingenious in their methods, may have an almost admirable desire to defy "the natural order", but it's clear that Parker and Longbaugh are very bad men indeed. In his opening narration, Parker says that the pair have "left the path", and with this script, McQuarrie had done the same thing.
When The Way of the Gun was released in 2000, critics were repulsed. Even in later years, many have filed the film alongside the many which sought to imitate the lucrative style of Quentin Tarantino. While the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction may have helped McQuarrie secure backing for the film, the work of Sam Peckinpah and Brian DePalma seem more plausible influences. One of the film's most important precursors may be Scarface: both feature perversely sympathetic criminal protagonists, a pervasive sense of corruption and decay, and a ferocious closing shootout.
The amorality of the world shown in The Way of the Gun extends beyond Parker and Longbaugh. The film is full of compromised and dangerous characters, from the bodyguards willing to profit from the death of their charge to the wealthy couple exploiting her desperation. The pregnant woman herself, Robin (Juliette Lewis) and the ageing, wily enforcer Joe (James Caan) are the closest things to "heroes" in the movie, and are anything but angels themselves.
While the nicknames that Parker and Longbaugh choose for themselves are fatalistic, the emphasis on criminal characters in The Way of the Gun gives McQuarrie's film more unpredictability than most. For all of the characters, the stakes are high and their competing goals mean that some will lose out. This animates them further still, and makes violence inevitable - as Robin observes about her ruthless bodyguards, "they don't care about dying - only losing".
Possessing a mean, amoral tone that could be called nihilistic, The Way of the Gun was probably doomed to suffer a poor reception from critics, and it barely made a profit despite a low budget of $8.5 million. Today, movies that feature complex and unsympathetic characters are often no more successful, even if they are deserving of praise. David Ayer's 2014 film Sabotage is less accomplished than McQuarrie's efforts, but surely would have been better received was it not for the way it deviated from the heroic roles expected of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Christpher McQuarrie has had major success in recent years, first with the impressive Jack Reacher and then with the Mission Impossible series (he directs the new entry Fallout, which is released this summer). His talent for comprehensible, exciting action sequences was first demonstrated with the little-seen The Way of the Gun - but it's also a fascinating look at how fun bad guys can be, perhaps especially when there aren't any good guys around.