In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1990 and seven from 2000 (the extra in a forthcoming double-feature column). The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films that were among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.

Befitting its title, 2000’s The Way of the Gun offers up numerous bone-rattling discharges of ammunition. It also doesn’t skimp on tall-talking quotables of its tao, such as “The longest distance between two points is a kidnapper and his money,” “I promise you a day of reckoning you won’t live long enough to never forget” and “I think a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.” The blistering finale is a plain-and-simple ode to Sam Peckinpah, swapping blazers for bandoliers and letting murderous lackeys in Members Only jackets sag under the weight of all the dues paid to join this club of criminals.

But Gun is neither a self-consciously cool artifact from an era of Tarantino knockoffs nor an egghead-cinephile homage. Rather than reveling in boring nihilism, dated shock or esoteric references, Gun embraces bloody twists and a quietly stirring moral compass (albeit one occasionally cockeyed by powerful magnets of malfeasance and malevolence). This center is suggested in an early line — ”If you’re careful enough to listen, life does take care” — but driven deep through pauses, silences and the simple majesty of watching Benicio Del Toro and James Caan as triggermen deafened to such advice by years of roaring guns and whispering devils. 

Even at his most convoluted and expository, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (for whom Gun was also a directorial debut) never loses himself in the loquacious way of clowns on his left and jokers on his right. No, McQuarrie would rather you get hooked on a feeling and high on believing that which you see rather than find him clever. There’s an often strange and typically thrilling magic to the proportions McQuarrie strikes to economize and expound upon language. In Gun, he illustrated his camera’s capability to alternate patience and panic, finesse and force.

Since 2010, McQuarrie has refined these instincts even further — almost single-handedly saving Tom Cruise’s sagging star power and bringing sturdiness to three (going on four) installments of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Elsewhere, he is Cruise’s right-hand man, for better (Jack Reacher) or for worse (The Mummy, admittedly unsalvageable by anybody). Other than George Miller, no one has made an action film in the last five years as fine as Mission: Impossible — Fallout. Probably no real contender, either, until whenever McQuarrie gets to one-up himself with Mission: Impossible 7 (from which even bystander footage of Cruise riding a motorcycle into a ravine worked the adrenaline more than any quarter-billion bloat in Tenet). McQuarrie is now the toast of Hollywood. But 20 years ago, after the general indifference to The Way of the Gun, he was almost just toast.

Gun was the first screenplay for which McQuarrie was credited since The Usual Suspects won 1995’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. (McQuarrie worked on 2000’s X-Men, but his allegedly antagonistic experience prompted a request to remove his name from the credits.) Oscar in hand, McQuarrie assumed he’d have no problem making his next movie, but as he told Sight and Sound: “You slowly realize no one in Hollywood is interested in making your film. They’re interested in making their films.” So began McQuarrie’s long career as a script doctor — a ronin revising and recalibrating premises in which studios saw problems and promise, the Hollywood equivalent of a bounty hunter bringing in a bail jumper for a kingly sum. However, McQuarrie sought the crown of his movie, his way — preferably an Alexander the Great biopic — but he knew he had to lasso some commercial success to make headway.

McQuarrie says he approached 20th Century Fox with an offer to write and direct a movie for any budget they would approve in exchange for complete creative control. “Fox told me to get fucked,” McQuarrie told Creative Screenwriting. “No money. No control. No nothing. They didn’t want my input. They just wanted me. For nothing.” After that, Del Toro (for whom Suspects also represented a breakout) asked McQuarrie why he hadn’t made another crime film. He cast aside his fear of being stereotyped as “the crime guy” and wrote what became The Way of the Gun — which, of course, had a plum spot for Del Toro as co-lead Harold Longbaugh. The legendary rapscallion has all manner of outstanding tics and asides here, few better than a silent charm Longbaugh lays on a convenience store clerk to pocket food and use the store’s VCR. He gives her a taste of smoky taboo under blindingly clear fluorescent lights, a tidbit to tide her over and then tuck away in her mind about a mysterious intruder one night long ago.

What might have solely been a superficially enjoyable modern noir becomes a subtextually enriched screed against the Hollywood system. Longbaugh and his volatile partner Parker (Ryan Phillippe, acquitting himself well against his type at the time) are purposefully irascible characters whom studio executives would insist be made more sympathetic. (Yes, those are the actual last names of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but that and the Peckinpah pastiche are as nerdy as the references get here.) The cold open finds them pummeling a woman (Sarah Silverman) who unleashes a derecho of derogatory remarks in their direction from across a parking lot. The scene teeters to the edge of misogynistic cheap thrills, but it’s a statement of sarcasm rather than purpose — emboldened by Silverman’s absurdly logorrheic rambles about “fucking babies’ heads”. Parker and Longbaugh may flash glimpses of humanity en route to a dusty, bloody confrontation south of the border, but they are not to be idolized, cheered on or even pitied. Their introduction is set to the Rolling Stones’ “Rip This Joint,” a raucous furniture-tossing classic but one whose refrain suggests a focal point for Gun’s collision of cacophony and compassion: “Rip this joint, gonna save your soul, round and round and round we go.”

So if not Parker and Longbaugh, whose soul is here for hypothetical salvation? Enter Caan as Joe Sarno. Joe is Pulp Fiction’s Winston Wolf as a real person and, if Vince Gilligan is being honest with himself, subconscious sartorial inspiration for Mike Ehrmentraut on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Joe is the bagman for drug-cartel money launderer Hale Chidduck (Scott Wilson). Whenever Hale needs to dirty his hands, he calls Joe — as Hale does after his unborn surrogate son is abducted during a brutal medical-center shootout and held for a $15 million ransom. The kidnappers? Parker and Longbaugh, of course, who overhear chatter about a millionaire’s surrogate, conduct appropriate surveillance, and plot a life-changing score. (Juliette Lewis plays Robin, the surrogate mother, while Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt are her bespoke bodyguards — all entertaining their own end-around games on Chidduck and the ransom.)

Stuck in the middle with all of them is Joe, who deals in “the fine art of adjudication” but will, as necessary, deliver the aforementioned reckoning that someone won’t live long enough to never forget. A grizzled survivor whom you underestimate at your own peril, Joe boasts a ragged scar on his neck that’s abstractly shaped like an arrowhead — a reflection of all the sharp weaponry he’s left in his body to staunch the bleeding while snapping off arrows’ shafts. Joe doesn’t saunter in until the plot is well underway, and it is a decidedly supporting role. But it’s one of the meatiest turns Caan has ever had, subverting his hothead-Corleone cachet for a taciturn tough guy who rarely uses his voice, let alone raises it. The veteran actor is simultaneously warm, venomous and pragmatically paternal, both in his reactions to what becomes a personal stake in the proceedings and his perfunctorily pleasant detente with Longbaugh before many bullets fly. The latter is an especially pleasurable, placid interlude of discourse between two weary men, whom McQuarrie allows to wearily poke at the formal language they use to try elevating what they do above “putting people in boxes.” We come to learn that Joe has an extremely tenuous escape hatch in play, one wrapped up in all of this mess, and a close-up of Caan’s meaty mitts on one character’s more delicate hand expresses it all just perfectly.

Meanwhile, Longbaugh learns that he and Parker are but rattlesnakes in a viper pit, and Gun offers plenty of surprises that feel surgically attached to its characters’ capacity for emotional manipulation and savvily subjective storytelling. Inspired by Maurice Jarre’s martial-percussion work on The Professionals, Joe Kraemer’s spartan and striking musical compositions bloom into lush ornamentation at all the appropriate moments; McQuarrie would later enlist Kraemer for the equally stirring Jack Reacher score. 

McQuarrie frames the scene of Robin’s abduction in a hospital hallway like a hostile hacienda. Inspired by something he saw on Cops, Del Toro apparently initiated the slow-motion car chase that follows. It’s a creative inversion of the adrenaline you anticipate, harkening back to the Peter Yates Bullitt era of skillful and tasteful escalation. Conscripting his Navy SEAL brother to handle shootout choreography, McQuarrie brings careful precision to nearly every gunfight. Whether tactical or impractical, each character communicates the training they’ve received. And even as that verisimilitude for violence (another eventual hallmark of McQuarrie’s later work) goes out the window for an over-the-top conclusion, that ceaseless hail of gunfire feels hyper-realistic to the predicament in which Parker and Longbaugh find themselves — that the way of the gun is tantamount to those who find it never really seeing an end to all the bullets. A moment where they can only stare in silence at a particularly precarious prenatal development in a dingy hotel room underscores the thin line between life and death on which they tread.

Even if McQuarrie hadn’t spelled it out in a Den of Geek retrospective interview, the parallel would be obvious: “People are just trying to survive and desperate to figure out an increasingly unpredictable marketplace — sort of like everyone in the film,” he told the website. “Parker and Longbaugh are examples of trying to fight the system. Joe Sarno is an example of what it takes to survive. My younger self couldn’t know it at the time, but I see it now — clear as day, like a warning from my future self.”

Subconsciously, The Way of the Gun served as McQuarrie laying out a roadmap for where he hoped to go … and what he feared might sidetrack him along the way. He worried that he was Parker and Longbaugh, overeager aggressors who could be so easily spat out. He hoped he could be Joe Sarno, silently subsiding long enough but always wondering whether the other shoe was waiting to drop. Diggs and Katt’s bodyguard characters are almost purely plot functions, but the tense glances they exchange with Parker and Longbaugh also uphold McQuarrie’s metaphorical nervousness, too. The bodyguards are but one bad break away from being in Parker and Longbaugh’s shoes themselves, and vice versa. It’s probably why Parker lets them live in a moment when he otherwise has them dead to rights. Even as Parker is not to be pitied, he’s painfully self-aware, often serving as McQuarrie’s profane mouthpiece through which to strike back at being told to fuck off so often for so long.

Gun wound up making a quiet $13 million against a quaint $8.5 million budget — not a number that ignites or douses careers. But McQuarrie essentially disappeared as a named contributor on anything for eight solid years, going dark until a co-writing credit on 2008’s Valkyrie. That World War II tale of an inside assassination plot against Adolf Hitler is a monumentally boring, dry and recitative reenactment of history free of the tension, themes or stakes McQuarrie so often deploys. But the film was a modest hit and the genesis for a decade-plus of more collaboratively fruitful outcomes with its star, Tom Cruise. Soon enough, McQuarrie was revising the script for Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, tinkering with Edge of Tomorrow and then getting the keys to the entire Mission franchise. (He also has a co-writing credit on Top Gun: Maverick, complete but currently in a COVID-19-related lurch.) To those who presume McQuarrie is but a mega-star’s yes man, listen to him speak about his Fallout experiences with Empire Magazine. Rarely have multiple hours of talking about the same movie moved faster or offered more illuminating insight — and self-interrogation — on how to maintain idiosyncrasy amid a machine you once maligned.

McQuarrie may still insist upon holding his industry to a higher standard, but his gamesmanship has grown more genial in the years since The Way of the Gun. It’s easier to exert influence over that which irritates you by letting your films speak for themselves rather than insisting that they speak about you. With an approach that’s both empiricist and empathetic, McQuarrie also told Den of Geek that he would redo everything now about The Way of the Gun but that’s because he is who he is now: “Is the film flawed? Is it uneven? Certainly, but it’s sincere. In the years since, it’s found its listeners — and that’s what people who enjoy the film are, listeners, or, as Joe says, observers. I’ve since learned I can’t make films strictly for them anymore. The rest of the class is holding them back, but I can send them little messages — a nod here, a wink there.”

A quarter-century later, we can still smirk at the flashy mechanics of Suspects, and justly so. But The Way of the Gun leaves us a little more stone-faced and somber, contemplating all the things we’ve denied ourselves because we feel somehow incapable or unworthy. All of us, McQuarrie included, have worried we’d wind up like Parker and Longbaugh, speeding off into an ominous twilight cloudburst in a shitbox van with a busted taillight. We’ve all made bad choices. But to quote one of the film’s wiser quips: “No one incident makes anyone who they are.”