Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
A movie star, James Caan, died this week. Here are two vintage reviews, which I wrote for The Herald, of movies that deserve to be better know, both with choice Caan performances. Yesterday, the director of The Way of the Gun, Christopher McQuarrie, tweeted some advice Caan gave him during shooting, and as you can see, McQuarrie told me the same story in the review/interview reproduced below, although my newspaper version lacks a well-placed f-bomb.
The Way of the Gun (2000)
“Fifteen million dollars is not money,” says a grizzled veteran of the criminal life. “It’s a motive with a universal adapter on it.”
The tang of that dialogue signals the return of Christopher McQuarrie, whose screenplay for The Usual Suspects created the cult of Keyser Soze and won the unknown writer an Oscar. McQuarrie makes his directing debut with The Way of the Gun, another investigation of the criminal code. Though not destined to be as beloved as The Usual Suspects, this brutal, wickedly funny film is every bit as accomplished a piece of work.
We begin with two drifters who have gone “off the path,” road-hungry dropouts who wouldn’t be out of place in a Kerouac novel or a Peckinpah movie. They are played by Ryan Phillippe and Benicio Del Toro (whose mumbly performance was one of the highlights of The Usual Suspects). Not entirely through design, they kidnap a pregnant woman (Juliette Lewis). She is acting as a surrogate mother for a guy who may be loaded.
He is, but he is also a very, very dangerous man (played by hoarse-voiced veteran Scott Wilson). He has two henchmen (the quirkily good Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt) willing to erase the two amateur kidnappers. And he has a bag man who takes a kind of zen path toward enforcing muscle. This guy is played by James Caan, who pops off the screen with his best performance in ages, a finely-tuned portrait of well-aged cool. All of these people get tied up in their own greed and cross-purposes. Add to the mix Caan’s old crony, played by Geoffrey Lewis (Juliette’s father), and we have a mess of double-crossing going on.
Because characters in movies like this always go to Mexico, the kidnappers travel south of the border, where the ultimate showdown (make that bloodbath—remember the Peckinpah reference) will take place. That’s when you realize this film is less a Nineties-style crime movie and more a western. It especially recalls the stylized world of Sergio Leone, the Italian “spaghetti western” maestro who could do more with a long pause than most directors could manage with a cavalry charge.
I interviewed the 31-year-old Christopher McQuarrie, who recently moved to Seattle, in August. A bearded, bespectacled fellow, he does not suggest someone with the deliciously nasty streak on display in Usual Suspects and Way of the Gun. McQuarrie said that a model for his new film was Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Way of the Gun uses glances and looks to convey character and mood in much the same way Leone did.
This was a conscious decision. “Because Usual Suspects was so dialogue-intensive, I didn’t want to do it again,” said McQuarrie. “I didn’t think I could do it better. So this dialogue is as sparse as humanly possible.”
McQuarrie spoke tartly about current film that use dialogue to explain everything to an audience. He prefers character histories that are “alluded to, but never spoken,” allowing the audience to piece things together. It’s part of his philosophy that a movie should “tell what a filmmaker thinks, not just tell an audience what they’re supposed to think. The audience’s imagination is the greatest tool you have…and nobody uses it anymore.”
Shooting proved an education. “As a screenwriter, you job is to accommodate a lot of people,” McQuarrie said. “As a director, you have to learn how to say no. I was letting everybody invent as much as they wanted, and it was taking longer and longer to get anything done.”
Old pro James Caan took the first-timer aside and shared some wisdom. “We’re actors,” Caan told McQuarrie, “and we like to be directed. This is your movie. Go back there and direct it.” McQuarrie did exactly that. “It made the job a lot easier,” he admits.
When casting about for a subject for his directing debut, McQuarrie found that studios were only interested in him making another crime picture. But he was tired of movies that glorify violence. So, he explained, “If all I can make is a crime film, I’m going to make it as unpleasant as I can.”
Way of the Gun is definitely unpleasant at times—an impromptu surgical procedure is especially gruesome. Yet where a movie like The Cell dishes up ultraviolence without any purpose other than lurid decoration, Gun is as pointed as a bullet.
Henry’s Crime (2010)
The protagonist of Henry’s Crime has a rational basis for his decision to rob a bank. He’s already served a jail term for exactly that offense, even though he was completely innocent. Released on parole, he’s haunted by the jailhouse phrase, “If you’ve done the time, do the crime.” Really, why not?
Well, because it’s illegal and he might get caught and sent back, of course. But those details don’t get in the way of this unexpectedly winning, admittedly small-scale movie.
Henry is played by Keanu Reeves, and while I have been hard on Mr. Reeves at times in the past, I have always thought that in certain roles he was ideally cast; My Own Private Idaho, for instance, or the Matrix pictures. And he’s just dandy here, as a rather blank fellow who becomes engaged by the planning for the robbery but also by the craft of acting.
You see, the bank sits next to an old theater, where a production of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard is in rehearsal. Henry finds himself not only attracted to the leading lady, the somewhat grand Julie (Vera Farmiga), but also to the prospect of treading the boards himself. He ropes in his ex-cellmate Max (James Caan) as a reluctant conspirator, and they go to work on the fact that an underground tunnel connects theater with bank. Unexpectedly, Henry gets drawn into the world of The Cherry Orchard, as Julie turns out to be a bit of a diva and her director (Peter Stormare) believes Henry might convincingly portray a Russian.
There is nothing earth-shaking about this film, and I can’t point to the ways director Malcolm Venville (44 Inch Chest) distinguishes it. But the humor is consistent, and the acting feels fresh and lively. Even the locations—shot in frosty Buffalo, New York—lend an offbeat note.
Vera Farmiga, who’s been working steadily since The Departed, is particularly fun. She often plays soulful roles, but this neurotic part allows her to get a little loud; she looks as though her job was to wake up Keanu Reeves in each scene (and she’s done a nice job of that).
And what about James Caan? We’ve gotten used to him lending his presence to ten-minute parts in movies, and it’s great to see the now-septuagenarian tough guy stick around for an entire picture. He also looks revived by this smart, warm-hearted project, a movie that deserves to be noticed before the big summer films come barreling along.
July 8, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.