The Usual Suspects
Audiences have always loved the crime drama. Nice, law-abiding people can sit in the safety of their theater and vicariously experience what it is like to live outside the law. Many of the top stars of Hollywood have come from this genre; Bogart, Cagney and Pacino have all become famous by playing criminals. With ‘The Usual Suspects’ you have the combination of a great cast, direction and story to hold you glued to the screen. The story starts with an explosion of a freighter, death and destruction filling the screen. Next we go back a bit in time to five criminals being hauled in for a bogus lineup. The criminals are a mixed bunch, some upscale, others petty crooks. There is Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), ex rouge cop turned master criminal; McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and his partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), specialists in high jacking trucks; Hockney (Kevin Pollak) the all-round thief and lastly, Verbal Kint, (Kevin Spacey) the handicapped con man. The five men plan to rip off a group of crooked cops making a big, one time score. Of course they get drawn into another job that turns horribly wrong. As it turns out the strings controlling their lives are being pulled the mysterious super criminal Keyser Soze. Soze is so fearsome that he has become more myth than reality. The stories about him include how he killed his own wife and children to make a point to a rival gang. He is without mercy, extremely powerful and as close to the devil incarnate as possible for a man. In fact he is directly compared to the devil in having his greatest feat being making people think he doesn’t exist. Two cops are after him, Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and a fed Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) both obsessed with catching the illusive Soze. The tale unfolds as a running dialogue between Verbal and Kujan. Someone powerful has gotten Verbal immunity for his share of crimes and Kujan is pressing the crippled crook for details about Soze’s involvement in the affair. Verbal weaves a story full of details that holds the interest of the cop. As his nickname implies Kint loves to talk and takes the opportunity to relate this mystery. For those that do not know this film I will refrain from giving away the ending. It is one of those conclusions that hit you hard at the moment you come to the realization and remain as one of the true Hollywood twists that you will always remember. The story is a tapestry of details and leads that unfold slowly like a page turning mystery. Rarely does a story this complex work the first time you view the film. Even after knowing the ending each viewing will reveal more to you than before. While many classify this as a film noir I have to disagree. There is no femme fatale present, just a group of untrustworthy men trying for that big score that will set them up.
With a cast as great as this the danger is they would compete for the lime light, that each would try to be the star. Just the opposite happens. Each great actor holds to this character and adds to the ensemble cast. Each actor has his own moment to shine and waits for the perfect time to do so. Spacey is, as always, the chameleon. He wears the role of Verbal as a comfortable pair of jeans. This is an actor that is in complete control. His body language, voice patterns and the depth of his eyes convey nuances of his performance few actors can achieve. His ability to add a touch of comic relief helps the flow of the film considerably. Byrne is also an actor of such talent that he brings something extra to the role. As he falls into the leadership role of this motley crew he retains an air of vulnerability, his love for his girlfriend, missing his life as a cop, all add to a realistic portrayal of a human being rather than just a criminal. Each of the men is able to add an extra dimension to their roles. This elevates this film from a run of the mill crime drama to a masterpiece of cinema.
With the release of ‘Usual Suspects’ director Bryan Singer burst on the Hollywood scene. This was his first really big budget film and he nailed it. Graduate of USC cinema school, he shows that formal training and a love for films can combine to create a masterpiece. His use of lenses is brilliant. It reminded me of the way Sidney Lumet used slightly distorting lenses in ‘Prince of the City’, creating a feeling that nothing you see is really what it appears to be. This widescreen presentation is so much better than the previous pan and scan version I owned. It shows the interaction of the characters, the attention to detail each scene holds. Although Singer’s follow-up project, ‘Apt Pupil’ did not meet with the expectations many had, this filmmaker has stood the test of time since this initial opus has become an exceptionally influential director. He is primarily responsible for the comic book Revolution in cinema. The rivalry between DC comics and Marvel has been going on over half a century. But now that comic books have gone something we’ve been from our parents and teachers to the source material for films earning upwards of $1 billion, Mr. Singer’s contribution of bringing ‘The X-Men’ to a lucrative franchise. It is easy to look back at ‘The Usual Suspects’, and watch a nascent genius as he starts a career that’s about to explode. He did not limit his talents just movies, is one of the executive producers behind ‘House, M.D.’, a medical mystery/drama that had an eight year run.
One of the stylistic elements that stands out in this film Singer’s use of lighting, stylistically re-creating the look and feel of the great films collectively comprise the best of film noir. The trouble that many directors have been attempting this is that they don’t know how to use color properly, particularly in a shadowy environment. Singer as a natural understanding of how to juxtapose properly muted color shadows that provide a sinister backdrop for the action. When I originally reviewed this film I made note of having some 3600 titles in my collection with this movie, how they rank among my favorites. Over the years I have doubled the size of my collection, but ‘The Usual Suspects’, remains as one of the most well-crafted and enjoyable films I’ve ever seen. This is also a film that I tend to upgrade as technology advances. Initially I had a VHS copy later updated to a widescreen tape and replaced by DVD. Finally, the film has been released after remastering for high definition, on Blu-ray in honor of the 20th anniversary. The aforementioned use of color, lighting and shadow is even more impressive with a 1080p video resolution and DTS-HD Master audio 5.1 you can experience this memorable film better than most movie theaters were able to present back in 1995. For example, the above-mentioned use of light and color is amazing. This level of detail permits you to notice everything from my new details such as the fabric of the clothing to the grand the scope of the various sets. Then been previous opportunities to move up to Blu-ray with this film, if you haven’t taken advantage of it yet, now’s your chance.