The Way of the Gun; Bring It On

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The Way of the Gun directed by Christopher McQuarrie

Christopher McQuarrie, screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, makes an inauspicious directing debut contrasting two generations of gun enthusiasts?young hotshots (Taye Diggs, Nicky Katt, Benicio Del Toro, Ryan Phillippe) working for or against older goons (James Caan, Scott Wilson, Geoffrey Lewis). McQuarrie's wild plot includes the kidnapping of a pregnant young woman (Juliette Lewis) hired to be surrogate mother of Wilson's child; plus petty criminals getting their signals crossed with an organized gang and seasoned detectives. But McQuarrie never contrasts generational attitudes on violence or crime that might reveal differences or similarities. It's all cacophony. (Even the pregnant woman responds to gunplay like most people do to car horns in traffic.) McQuarrie exploits violence as cool excitement, anti-inertia. It's a celebration of attitudes that (six years after Pulp Fiction) I had thought the culture had moved beyond.

There's a sense that McQuarrie intended to make a killer noir to end all killer noirs. That portentous title suggests a specious philosophy derived from tough guy action movies, but without observing human behavior beyond genre stereotypes. Despite a cast of good actors, the characterizations are stock, unsurprising. So is each dramatic skirmish except for a blood-soaked birthing scene that is simply outre.

In More than Night, a recent scholarly study of noir, James Naremore observed how 1940s film noir originally "offered philosophical or social criticism" as well as a provocative "blending of menace and iconoclasm." The first noirs rejected Hollywood's standard sentimental humanism for the "social fantastic" and the "dynamism of violent death." But half a century later all that has turned sour, ineffectual; the most celebrated recent noirs (The Last Seduction, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, etc.) had almost no credible, recognizable social atmosphere or experience. Naremore suggests that "most examples of neo-noir are less artistically sophisticated and politically interesting than the films they emulate." He cites Barbara Klinger's apt term for this degeneration: "mass camp."

It's not certain how flippant McQuarrie is being. The Way of the Gun's seeming lack of sentiment comes across as primarily crude. The opening shock effects are facetious: A goth-punk face-off with two triggermen begins with a snarly girl getting punched in the face. It's followed by two extended gay-baiting interview sequences that might have been outtakes from The Usual Suspects. One critic argued that The Usual Suspects was a metaphor on gay choice, dramatized through a lineup of diverse masculine types. But the fear of homosexuality that McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer presented there harkened back to pre-Stonewall, sub-Maltese Falcon panic. Those attitudes here are further confused by Del Toro's and Phillippe's performances. (Not even Sal Mineo gone blond would have been as convincing a sociopathic cocktease as pouty Phillippe.) Essentially McQuarrie and Singer run with the homophobic pack, devising new modes of gay-bashing, gay-taunting. Their ideas of machismo are as fuzzy as their notions on violence.

Still, it's clear that McQuarrie's rehash of so many noir cliches comes from a creative paucity in addition to a contemporary, spiritual numbness. That's why the proliferation of neo-noir is dismaying. Winking at a bloodbath like The Way of the Gun is not a sign of esthetic refinement, but rather a retreat from the moral inquiry of early noirs. This film's hideous refusal to deal with the real world?or even a construct as authentic as Peckinpah's in Straw Dogs?recalls a Faulkner description of nihilistic culture: "a theater for violence and injustice and bloodshed and all the satanic lusts of human greed and cruelty...the civilized land and people which had expelled some of its own blood and thinking and desires that had become too crass to be faced and borne longer."

You could enjoy crime movies like High Sierra, White Heat, The Asphalt Jungle in a culture where law and justice seemed possible, imaginable, desired; or where criminals and cops battled for social order?moral stakes also understood by socially aware 70s noir directors. But, as usual, McQuarrie's characters don't represent any social anxiety, just the adolescent fantasy of fun violence. Ignoring the sting of death and loss, McQuarrie has the temerity to treat it simply as thrill. His only innovation is a sound effects track so hyped up with boings, blasts, richochets and thuds that even interior-set shootouts (one in a motel patterned after Walter Hill's hotel shootout in 48 HRS.) are percussive, punishing (an effect foolishly modeled on Saving Private Ryan's D-Day invasion). Yet none of McQuarrie's stylistics has Spielberg's historical purpose or Hill's narrative efficiency. With McQuarrie noir is no longer anarchic or challenging, but it is truly insensitive.

Disgust prompted me to walk out 10 minutes before The Way of the Gun ended. Duty prompted me to go back and see it through to the end. But even had the last 10 minutes of Griffith's Intolerance been edited on, this movie would not have been redeemed. Forget pomo philosophy. The Way of the Gun is a sort of anti-manifesto?an unintentional demonstration of the kind of movie that should not be made anymore.

Bring It On directed by Peyton Reed

Shrewdly marketed as innocuous race war, Bring It On pretends to explore the reality behind hiphop's crossover popularity and the questionably democratic "triumph" of teen pop. It goes back to a venerable source of teen rivalry?high school athletics. But these varsity teams are not the usual suspects. Bring It On's showdown is between cheerleaders?San Diego's predominantly white Toros and East Compton's all black Clovers (the ethnic mix-ups begin with those squad names evoking Old California natives and pioneers). Cheerleading brings sex into the rivalry, just as sex appeal mitigates the brazen emulations of teen pop. (After first objecting to Britney Spears or Nick LaChey you have to struggle to resist them.) This saucy complication is what makes Bring It On possible?and amusing.

It's pointless to complain that a studio-financed movie merely kids the well-known subject of whites appropriating black style. Capitalizing on crossover's enticements (feeling ambivalent about it) allows the filmmakers to address a topic no one else in the mainstream wants to talk about. It's a reality that won't be invoked on TRL. At least Bring It On does admit cultural theft is an issue.

That makes it almost a good movie. In fact, Bring It On is the most interesting new film in town (the top grosser of its opening week) because audiences respond to its radical marketing strategy?a cat fight that promises to be a truth-telling group fight. As blonde, perky Torrance (Kirsten Dunst) faces off with bronze, sultry Isis (Gabrielle Union), they represent the presuppositions of their estranged castes. White curiosity vs. black resentment. Privilege vs. Poverty. No agitprop in recent memory has boasted such lissome placards.

Bring It On swallows its most shattering revelation (Torrance discovering that the Toros' championship routines were stolen from the Clovers) like a camel swallowing an elephant. After that, the farcical high school comedy burgeons with significance. It approximates the demi-phenomenon represented by Britney Spears-Backstreet Boys-NSYNC-Christina Aguilera-Mandy Moore-Jessica Simpson-Pink-98 of whites casually profiting on cultural theft. (Take black style and "put blonde hair on it," one of the Clovers charges.) Through Bring It On's analogy, the situation is recognized as the heart of a national tendency?in fact, an industry of empowered-group promotion. But Bring It On doesn't stint from providing an answer to that crisis. Amidst typical bitching and crushes and flirtations ("You're having cheer sex with him!"), Torrance and Isis come to understand the unfair way of the world.

"I'm not down with stealing," Torrance tells her frustrated teammates, and Isis calms her down, saying, "I'm like them, we have class." When Torrance gets her father to write a check enabling the Clovers to make the out-of-state finals, her gesture isn't guilt-driven. Like Cher in Clueless, Torrance is guileless. Isis responds in kind, with defiant self-reliance that shouldn't be mistaken for grandstanding (besides, an Oprah-like subplot makes Isis' pride credible and acceptable). In a better movie, Torrance's goodwill gesture might have been seen from a black p.o.v.; it would be enlightening to then recognize and gauge how the contemporary white helping effort (Torrance's sense of personal responsibility) is not only exemplary, but rare.

It's laughable to read reviews complaining that Bring It On has too little of Gabrielle Union's presence. If those critics realized the extent white privilege dominates pop culture they wouldn't be surprised that the film is more about the white cheer captain than the black. (We never see the Clovers rehearse; they're just naturally athletic and rhythmic.) "Everyone in favor of winning?" Torrance asks her teammates?but it's also a cultural, political, national, racial question. And really, it's a rhetorical question; her (correct) assumption is that they all agree. (Just look at which ethnic group wins Oscars and critics' movie prizes year after year.) Bring It On is a small, valiant gesture at breaking down the hegemony that even liberals like to overlook.

For even this much social courage, Bring It On is a more laudable film than The Virgin Suicides. Its satire bursts mainstream pop's middle-class Caucasian cocoon. Some hit-or-miss jokes ("This isn't a Cheerocracy!" You're a Cheertator!") come from screenwriter Jessica Bendinger trying for Amy Heckerling's wittily invented nomenclature for Clueless. And first-time director Peyton Reed's not agile enough at staging cheers or the John Hughes touch (clearly an effective dramatic idiom for the current pop generation). Yet there's considerable social understanding here. The Toros' most devastatingly American cheer goes: "That's all right! That's okay! You're gonna pump our gas one day!"

Bendinger and Reed understand white competitiveness better than most film critics. In fact, Bring It On also has a genuinely ambivalent Hughes subtext. Torrance's infatuation with hip-nerdy Cliff (Jesse Bradford) is used to contrast whitebread pop (her cheeriness) with classic rock rebellion (his moodiness). Cliff is so cool he reaches back before Nirvana for white pop touchstones. He doesn't cheer, he's a guitar freak with punk posters (the Cramps, the Ramones, the Clash) on his bedroom wall. Evidently punk is a white pop refuge, associated with brains and authenticity?especially when the charts are ruled by aerobicized Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey clones. It's a subtly hegemonic (and desperate) cultural fact. Admitting this makes Bendinger and Reed more honest and generous than Hughes. Their Torrance is a world-beater who teases Cliff with a supremely commonsense riposte. She sighs, "The Clash, how vintage!" as only a pretty girl with the upper hand, and an awesome back flip, can.

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