The Usual Suspects (Special Edition) Review
When The Usual Suspects was released, in late summer 1995, one might have been excused for thinking that it had no commercial future whatsoever, given that the dominant trend was for hip, Tarantino-inspired tales of ruthless yet smooth criminals, complete with witty dialogue obsessing about the minutae of popular culture and a suitably marketable soundtrack of obscure 60s and 70s pop songs deliberately chosen for semi-ironic effect. However, most of the young pretenders following Tarantino lacked his undeniable spark of originality, producing little more than bathetic rubbish. The makers of the critically admired but otherwise unknown Public Access would, therefore, not have been the obvious candidates to make one of the decade’s most stylish and intelligent thrillers, any more than the director of Alien 3 could be counted upon to make the finest serial killer film since Manhunter. However, Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie did, and the result is one of many people’s favourite films, deservedly so. However, it’s worth looking at why an apparently innocuous crime film became such a huge success, and how it holds up when you know the infamous twist.
The plot works in two different time zones, both of them telling utterly gripping stories. The ‘present’ story concerns ‘Verbal’ Kint (Spacey), a loquacious cripple, being grilled by the smug Agent Kujan as to his involvement in a massacre on a boat that ended up leaving countless people dead, possibly as a result of the mysterious Keyser Soze. The second plot, as narrated by Verbal, is the background that led up to the massacre on the boat, as we are introduced to him and the rest of the ‘usual suspects’; Dean Keaton (Byrne), a corrupt cop and de facto leader of the gang, McManus (Baldwin), a nutcase who specialises in killing people as unpleasantly and efficiently as possible, Hockney (Pollack), a crooked garage owner, and Fenster (Del Toro), who has a purpose of some sort, but his incomprehensible speech makes it impossible to understand what it is. Brought together in a police line-up, they soon decide to exact revenge on the corrupt police force that has set them up; however, who, exactly, is the man who seems to be pulling their strings, Keyser Soze?
To answer that question, it’s necessary to spoil the film’s famous twist, so stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film. McQuarrie’s and Singer’s masterstroke was to end the film with the revelation that virtually every word that Verbal has said has been a lie of some kind, entirely inspired by bits of paper in Kujan’s office, coffee cups and other thoroughly banal items; the twist was then provided by the revelation that Verbal was in fact Keyser Soze, his identity revealed only by a badly burnt Hungarian, one of the two survivors of the massacre. It is a breathtakingly audacious reversal; not only does it make the viewer reassess what he or she has seen for the past 90-odd minutes (no fat here, unlike so many bloated exercises in boring the audience), but it also brings a completely different side to a character who has been established as one of the great screen villains, a man so dedicated to revenging his wife’s rape that he begins by killing his family, so that they no longer have to bear the shame of the dishonour. It’s astonishingly deep, complex stuff for a mainstream film, with the Baudelaire quotation ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist’ informing every scene like a mantra. It helps, of course, that Kevin Spacey is just about perfect in the role, with subsequent viewings confirming that there are moments where Verbal behaves in a surprisingly ruthless or manipulative fashion that seem isolated on their own, but fit perfectly into the scheme of the film.
Another key feature throughout, and one wittily helped by the casting, is that none of the gang are what they seem. Keaton, an American ex-cop as played by the Irish Byrne, at first appears to be a Clint Eastwood or Humphrey Bogart type, the strong, silent figure of authority who appears to be redeemed by his love for Jo (Amis). However, as Kujan points out, he is also a bent cop, completely lacking in any kind of morality, and so our admiration for him feels misplaced. Fenster, as played by a young-looking del Toro, is, to quote McQuarrie, ‘a black man with a Jewish last name as played by a Hispanic actor’, just as Kobayashi, a technically Pakistani character, is played by the decidedly English Pete Postlethwaite, an actor ironically best known for playing an Irishman in In the Name of the Father. These themes of deceit and trickery work beautifully in the film, all the more brilliantly for working on the subconscious.
Technically, the film also represented a move away from the MTV cutting and in-your-face effects that were becoming popular around then. Helped by the inspired doubling-up by John Ottman as both editor and composer, the film moves with breathtaking assurance and style through the incredibly labyrinthine storyline that owes equal amounts to Raymond Chandler, Akira Kurosawa and John Webster., with McQuarrie’s literate script only stooping to a pop culture reference once, with a vaguely out-of-place mention of The Incredible Hulk. Otherwise, Singer’s direction has the freshness and pace that one associates with an on-form Brian de Palma or William Friedkin, both directors who also managed to intelligently subvert the thriller genre to their own ends; there’s one particular sequence that he singles out on the commentary, when the gang plan to assassinate Kobayashi but end up letting him go, that feels Hitchcockian in its remarkably assured pace, action and dialogue; as with many of Hitch’s scenes, it feels more exciting than a dozen car chases despite only containing one brief moment of violence. Singer did not repeat this technical brilliance in his disappointing follow-up, Apt Pupil, but managed to triumphantly restore intelligence and moral ambiguity to the comic-book adaptation with X-Men, a film with a surprisingly large amount in common with The Usual Suspects, although with a necessarily reduced amount of independence and autonomy.
The cast are all great; Spacey may have won the Oscar, but it’s a shame that Byrne’s superb work has been overshadowed, as this might well be his best performance to date, excluding Miller’s Crossing; as mentioned above, the combination of vulnerability and potential callousness is a difficult one for any actor to pull off, and he does so admirably. Del Toro and Baldwin are both hilarious in fairly comic turns, and Pollack reinforces the themes of ambiguity and deceit with a sly turn as the real perpetrator of the crime that brought the men together in the first place. Incidentally, McQuarrie has claimed that he wrote Hockney as gay, but in the style of the 40s and 50s crime films where such things were expressed ambiguously; perhaps that’s another way to re-watch the film. Of the others, Chazz Palminteri does his best not to be utterly upstaged by Spacey with a portrait of a man who makes the fatal mistake of thinking that he’s the cleverest of all those he is around.
There are some films that are critically acclaimed, do well at the box office, and are then all but forgotten a few years down the line, because, ultimately, they’re no different to half a dozen others filling space on the video (or DVD) rental shelves. However, there are a few that continue to be popular, if only because of their originality, style, wit, intelligence and downright watchability, and The Usual Suspects is, undoubtedly, one of those very select films that feel fresh and exciting every time they’re watched. A genuine modern-day classic then, and well worth buying in any incarnation; however, this DVD release might be the last word on the film for the time being.
Head and shoulders above the decidedly lacklustre transfers that the film has had up until now, MGM have presented the film in a very nice 2.35:1 version. For those who saw the film for the first time through the horrors of pan and scan (in which version the R1 is also presented, although thankfully we are spared it), it may come as something of a shock to see how different the film looks; Singer’s direction frequently uses all the frame to provide perfect compositions, which are presented beautifully here. Otherwise, this is just a notch away from perfect, due to some occasional grain and very, very slight print damage, but colours are bold and vivid, there is no noticeable edge enhancement or shimmering, and the overall effect is very pleasing indeed.
A 5.1 mix is provided, which does a nice job of showcasing John Ottman’s epic orchestral score, as well as making the action scenes feel vivid and exciting. As much of the film is fairly dialogue based, there is a limit to how active the surround effects can actually be, but there is a pleasingly wide sound range that makes the witty dialogue sound much clearer than it has ever done before.
After all the previous versions of the film have been released with rather lacklustre extras; thankfully, this excellent new version redresses the balance, eschewing pointless little features in favour of well thought-out and consistently interesting supplemental material that actually adds to one’s appreciation of the film. The two commentaries on the first disc act as an excellent hors d’oeuvre. The solo effort by John Ottman, editor and composer (and now a director, of the lamentable Urban Legends 2) is occasionally subdued, with some patches of silence, but extremely interesting on a technical level as he describes how he manages to dovetail the ominous score with the images so well. The other commentary is a bit of an antique, featuring Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie; however, the fact that it has previously appeared on DVD, laserdisc and video (!) releases of the film does not overshadow the fact that it’s an excellent track, with some very funny Chazz Palminteri impersonations and a frank look at the low-budget nature of the film. Although recorded around the film’s original release, and thus lacking in real perspective, it’s still well worth a listen for fans of the film.
The meat of the extras are, unsurprisingly, found on the second disc, and prove to be fairly exhaustive. The highlight is probably a very good 2-part making-of documentary, divided into ‘Rounding up the usual suspects’ and ‘Doing time with the usual suspects’; featuring interviews with all the major cast, Singer and Ottman (but no McQuarrie, sadly), they cover the film’s genesis, casting, production, reception and eventual status amongst film buffs of the world around. With some surprisingly candid moments throughout, such as Baldwin and Pollak’s open loathing of one another and discussion of Byrne’s near-departure from the film, this is several notches above other documentaries. Next is a feature called ‘Keyser Soze: Fact or Fiction?’, which is an exploration of the film’s most famous, if virtually unseen (or is he…) character; much in the same vein as the other two features, this is equally interesting, with the surprising revelation that Byrne believed that, in fact, he was playing Keaton as Keyser Soze until he saw the completed film!
Other extras are less substantial, but still well worth watching. There’s a brief piece showing the actors at Cannes that is most notable for a moment of sheer vitriol from Pollak (who does not come across as a nice guy at all), an oddly edited gag reel that ends in a totally bizarre ‘Keyser Soze rap’ that sounds far funnier than it actually is, some inconsequential deleted scenes that add nothing to the film, a John Ottman interview that more or less repeats other interviews and his own commentary track, and a couple of bizarre little outtake reels, one of ‘Kevin Spacey and friend’ for a brief scene in the film and the other, and more enjoyable, of interview outtakes, where those being interviewed respond in- how best to put it?- less articulate fashion than in the documentaries. There’s also an interesting bit of Singer whinging about the lack of integrity in the DVD industry; it’s a pleasant change to see stuff this candid and honest to all the ‘oh, this is such a wonderful opportunity for me to bolster my ego once more’ fluff on many retrospective features. The disc concludes with the usual round of trailers (including one with an Ottman introduction), which are a rather better guide to the film than usual.
A film that fully deserves the label of ‘modern classic’, for both reinventing the film noir with wit, intelligence and style and for introducing Kevin Spacey to a far wider audience than any film he made before, is presented on a technically pleasing disc with a well thought-out selection of extras that manage to intrigue, captivate and entertain, as well as assuring that this is likely to be the definitive version of the film for some time yet.