There’s nothing fancy about the direction. Relative newcomer Bryan Singer would cement his status as an A-list filmmaker with the one-two bunch of X-Men, and X2. As for the acting, well, the cast was a crazy cobbled together combination of formidable foreign power (Gabriel Byrne) two soon to be Oscar winners (an almost unrecognizable Benecio Del Toro and Kevin Spacey), a ‘not Alec’ and now born-again Baldwin (Stephen) and a stand up barely holding his own (Kevin Pollak). Toss in a former Academy fave (Chazz Palminteri), a couple of recognizable character players (Dan Hedaya and Pete Postlethwaite) and one lone female for good measure (Suzy Amis) and you’ve got a crackerjack company. From the gritty NY to LA feel to the Singer’s cinematic splashes, The Usual Suspects (new to the book and Blu-ray release dynamic) is one of the best remembered films of the ’90s.
But the real reason it continues to resonate, even after more than a decade as part of the motion picture mythos, is Chris McQuarrie’s award winning script. Intricate, inventive, and owing as much to old school dialogue as the similarly stereotyped “twist” ending, the screenplay became endemic. It sits alongside the work of Quentin Tarantino and early M. Night Shyamalan as examples of the writer guiding the artistic and aesthetic approach of the film format. Since then, some have taken this mandate to overreaching extremes, loading their works with way too many words and “aren’t we clever” convolutions. But it’s not just a question of quirky dialogue, narrative nuance, and character/circumstantial depth. In the case of The Usual Suspects, what’s not included is just as important as what is. McQuarrie doesn’t indulge in a scribe’s desire to make everything about the words. Instead, he lets his approach handle much of the magic.
Our story centers around the investigation into a early morning explosion on a ship. Discovered is one raving, half-dead Hungarian, several corpses, and a meek little “cripple” named Verbal Kint (Spacey). Under interrogation by U.S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan (Palminteri), our handicapped hood spins a wild tale about meeting up with an explosives expert (Pollack), a pair of career criminals (Baldwin and DelToro) and a dirty ex-cop trying to go straight (Byrne) during a standard NYC police lineup. There, they discuss heading out to California to do a job for a known drug dealer, Redfoot (Peter Greene). When that situation goes South, they are confronted by a lawyer (Postlethwaite) working for the notorious international madman named Keyser Soze. In order to save themselves, the five agree to infiltrate the aforementioned boat. Of course, there is a double cross planned, though by and for who remains a mystery. But Verbal seems to know something…
At its core, The Usual Suspects is a cool, calculated crime story. It’s a tale told by a con artist, full of sound facts and fictionalized fury, that in the end, signifies and demands the audience rewind and revisit their perspective on everything. Indeed, this is a movie about viewpoint, about someone who is both the most unreliable narrator in history as well as the most knowledgeable person in the party. It’s a battle of personalities, a war waged with loyalties and honor among thieves. It’s also an unusual throwback to the days when men of low stature flitted along the edges of legality, looking for a chance at redemption…or a really big payday. Sitting at the center is Kevin Spacey’s Best Supporting Actor work – complex, cloying, and just a tad creepy. He is Verbal Kint, in as much as everyone else is the film is who we are told they are. Remember, this is a movie based on someone else’s version of what happened. We aren’t necessarily seeing reality.
That’s why McQuarrie’s work is so important. He must keep the many divergent (and sometimes contradictory) plot threads from unwinding. He must also make it all come together and seem real. Finally, he has to make the payoff plausible, not just some goofy “guess who” reveal. When we – as well as the individuals onscreen – realize what has happened, we have to feel delightfully duped, not out and out cheated. We have to recognize where we came up short and how we too were lulled into complacency via an extension exercise in ‘spin.’ When Verbal says, “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist,” he could also be talking about McQuarrie and his characters. The script spends 100 minutes preparing us for a certain end, only to completely countermand such a conclusion.
This is not to say that Singer and his cast aren’t important. Indeed, the actors have to sell this material, never once giving away the knowledge that what we are seeing might not have happened. Luckily, from Del Toro’s incomprehensible cool (he speaks in a jazz scat mumble) to Byrne’s basic Miller’s Crossing menace, the performances are perfect. Even individuals you wouldn’t peg as particularly weighty – we’re looking at you, Mr. Baldwin and Mr. Pollak – are excellent here. Singer just has to stay strong in the box and not let the often outrageous demands of the script scare him off. A good example is the ‘ghost story’ sequence where we learn just who Keyser Soze is supposed to be. Singer has to sell this, or the rest of the movie might not work. He does so in a way that helps turn our fabled villain into the legend the ending demands.
Because it is so intricate, it would have been nice for this Blu-ray to offer up a few bits of added content to explain how McQuarrie, Singer, and the cast pulled it off. Sadly. all we get is a collection of trailers (boo!). On the plus side, the movie looks and sounds amazing. The2.39:1, 1080p transfers surpasses any previous digital version and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 keeps everything – words, deeds, music, and ambience – in excellent balance. While the packaging provides some text-based essays and actor bios, what we really want is a commentary track. Just to hear how these two relative novices concocted one of the great cinematic ‘gotchas’ of the 20th century would be amazing, considering the cynical, savvy viewership they had to contend with.
Today, The Usual Suspects remains an enigma, a movie where the writer was at the forefront. In the current business called show, a script is almost always the last things considered – or if it initially draws in the talent, it is often taken apart and restyled to fit the famous face’s need. The motion picture marketplace rarely defends the author. In this case, the scribe wins.