ABOUT HALFWAY THROUGH The Wayof the Gun is a disarming meeting between Longbaugh (Benicio Del Toro), a stoic kidnapper, and Joe Sarno (James Caan), a weathered and square-jawed bagman who has been sent to kill him. Sharing a drink in a bordertown tavern, they are like two competing door-to-door salesmen. Although pitted as enemies, they find a mutual, if not guarded, respect for each other's ability to survive for so long in their lives of crime. They chat amiably about the changes in the tough-guy profession and bemoan the use of new jargon by the younger generation of thugs. "Adjudicate," Longbaugh asks, "What the fuck does that mean?"

The night ends with each slapping the other on the back and a matter-of-fact promise by one to put a bullet in the other's head. It's a clever scene, mocking The Way of the Gun's own genre of testosterone movies, while at the same time delivering a gravity of seriousness and suspense. Unfortunately, the strength of this scene is replicated so infrequently elsewhere in the movie that the flimsy storyline collapses under its own weight.

Writer and director Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) adds The Way of the Gun to a recent litany of forgettable, road-chase movies. Juliette Lewis, the queen of white-trash road trip movies, plays a surrogate mother who has been kidnapped and held for a big ransom. Longbaugh and his way too well-groomed sidekick, Parker (Ryan Phillippe), race across the parched Southwestern landscape, trying to elude the father's henchmen. (The kidnapped woman happens to be carrying the child of a syndicate lynchpin.)

It's uncertain whether the kidnappers are wily veterans of the desperado business or merely hapless--but damn lucky--boobs. Along the way, they show the audience neat little tricks on the art of eluding goons and outsmarting fate. Instead of being captivating and inventive, however, these clever gimmicks seem incongruous to the movie and the cerebral capacity of the characters.

With the exception of the occasional pit-stop for the characters to let down their guard, exchange notes about their ragged emotions, and plot their double-crossing plans, the movie thunders along with the premise that more bullets and bigger guns means more excitement. It is a disappointing and largely empty narrative falling far short of the intriguing storytelling in McQuarrie's The Usual Suspects.