The title of young director Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects refers, of course, to a famous laugh line in Casablanca: Police prefect Claude Rains has just witnessed Humphrey Bogart shooting a Nazi bigwig. Instead of having Bogie arrested, Rains turns to his subordinate and deadpans, "Major Strasser has been shot. . . . Round up the usual suspects." Who did Rains' officers "round up" that night, while Rains and Bogie were off getting drunk at the Free French garrison? Did any of them get beaten up, or shaken down? Did any of them panic and run, only to be shot in the back?
Casablanca was wartime noir, sassy but ultimately pure of heart. It was too concerned with the common enemy of all right-thinking nations to worry itself overmuch with the amorphous underworld of which Rains so cavalierly speaks. But with the Nazis crushed, it was every man--and woman--for him or herself. In the true noir pictures of the decades that followed, the usual suspects became the main characters.
Plenty of genres aren't what they used to be, but noir is one type of film that is now, on occasion, done better than ever. John Dahl's Red Rock West and, in spite of a bum script, The Last Seduction; David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks on TV; Scott McGehee and David Siegel's Suture; Bryan Singer's little-seen Public Access; and, of course, Pulp Fiction are all examples of recent works that need not hang their heads alongside Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep. The Usual Suspects, Singer's sophomore effort, may also be added to that list--it doesn't waste a good title.
Five career crooks, a loose gang, are engaged by a shadowy, possibly apocryphal crime lord named Keyser Soze to pull an ambitious and deadly job. Christopher McQuarrie's intricate and rather improbable script begins minutes after this crime--a raid on a ship docked in Santa Barbara, ostensibly loaded with drugs--has gone hideously wrong. One of the title characters, a squirming, neurasthenic gimp known as "Verbal" Kent (Kevin Spacey), demonstrates how he earned his nickname. He spends the next day eloquently spilling his guts to a Customs investigator (Chazz Palminteri) about how he and his partners met, and the intrigues that led up to the conflagration on the ship. What he tells, Singer shows, in elegant, ironically earnest flashbacks.
The Usual Suspects is a dazzling exercise in its form, lacking only one of the usual obligatory elements: sex. The only significant woman in the film, Suzy Amis, is little more than a bit player, and though the title characters have their loyalties to each other, their relationships seem to be basically professional. As with the very different Pulp Fiction, the film is really about talk. In Quentin Tarantino's film, the talk was a form of violence; in The Usual Suspects, it's more like an art form. Verbal, self-consciously playing the role of humble narrator, mythologizes his cohorts, and endows the elusive Soze with satanic stature. Spacey delivers yet another of his astounding character turns--he manages to make Verbal's vulnerable manner seem seedy and maudlinly manipulative, and at the same time compellingly tragic. His work dominates, but sharp, coherent performances are given as well by Gabriel Byrne as Keaton, a haunted ex-cop gone bad; Kevin Pollak as Hockney, a grumpy explosives expert; Stephen Baldwin as the jolly, rambunctious entry man McManus; and Benicio Del Toro as his friend, a mushmouth named Fenster. Palminteri, Giancarlo Esposito and Dan Hedaya are good as the flatfoots, and Pete Postlethwaite is chilling as Soze's creepy emissary.
Even though The Usual Suspects is great to look at, it is, ultimately, all talk--the plot is all smoke and mirrors and verbal moonshine. Singer and McQuarrie come up with an ingenious and visually spellbinding way to acknowledge this deficit, but even so, the film might seem rather empty, even silly, if it weren't humanized by the actors. This cast conspires with the writer and director to double-cross the audience, and being hoodwinked by them is too much fun to sting.
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