In his review of the special edition DVD of "The Usual Suspects," my colleague, John J. Puccio, observed that "it can be seen as (a) a violent, complicated, and entertaining crime drama, (b) an intricately conceived puzzle play, (c) a fragment of gangster mythology or criminal folklore, (d) a parody of cops-and-robbers films, (e) an outright black comedy, or (f) all of the above."
That's true, which is why the movie stands up under (and even invites) multiple viewings. But at times you get the feeling that "The Usual Suspects" is too self-consciously clever for its own good, starting with the title. If you consider the context of the famous "Casablanca" allusion, that line is spoken near the film's end. Nightclub owner Rick is at the airport saying goodbye to his old flame and the leader of the resistance she married. When a Nazi major tries to stop them, Rick shoots and kills him. Moments later, the police arrive, and to save Rick's life, his old friend and chief of police tells the officers, "Round up the usual suspects." It was pure diversion and sleight-of-hand--as is this film, especially if you consider that it begins where "Casablanca" left off.
Here, the usual suspects are rounded up in one of the early sequences, and viewers become like those French gendarmes who've been deliberately sent off in the wrong direction. As the narrative bounces back and forth between the past, recent past, and present, viewers are asked to try to make sense of it all, like the police. "I wanna know why 27 men died for 91 million dollars worth of dope that wasn't there" onboard a ship that became the site of a deadly shoot-out, the sergeant says. Who is killing whom, and why? Is it all drug-related, or is it bigger than that? Is a never-seen crime kingpin named Keyser Soze involved, or is he just a myth? Compounding the challenge is that the narrator might be unreliable. Nothing is terribly clear for much of the film, which asks that readers be patient and take one clue at a time. Are we being had? Well, before "Pulp Fiction," the answer might have been "yes." Since then, though, viewers have become used to challenging films that fragmentize and deliberately rearrange the narrative so that it forces us all to work harder to understand what's going on. Just don't work too hard, because the ending might lead you right back where you started.
Kevin Spacey won a Best Supporting Actor for his role as the "gimpy" petty criminal who's rounded up with four other felons and ex-cons after a truck loaded with gun parts turns up missing. That was the recent past, but because we also see them involved in the present-time fiasco aboard that burning ship in the harbor, we're left trying to piece together how they got from point P to point Z, and speculate on how anyone got to P in the first place. There's police corruption related to the drug trade and drug lords that we're plenty challenged to
The narrator is Verbal Kint (a name so heavy-handed and loaded with meaning that it could have appeared in an Ian Fleming novel), and Spacey plays the kind of low-life we normally associate with snitches and narcs. He doesn't have full use of his hands, his feet cross over themselves so that it's hard for him to walk, and he's the type that, in prison, would have been somebody's "girlfriend." Interrogating him much of the time are two cops--a determined custom's officer named Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and a tough sergeant named Jeffrey Rabin (Dan Hedaya).
The four men who are brought in for questioning are McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a top-notch entry man who's a little crazy; McManus' partner Fenster (Benicio del Toro), a latino who speaks English so fast and so butchered that the cops think he's using Spanish; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the explosives expert who doesn't care about anything; and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), the former cop who did time in prison for murder and may or may not be trying to go straight now. At first we think they're rounded up randomly, then we think it was fate. Finally, we learn it wasn't fate at all, but a very deliberate attempt to get the men together for a number of specific "jobs," each one more difficult and explosive than the other.
There's plenty of in-your-face violence in "The Usual Suspects" and some tongue-in-cheek humor, though not nearly as much as in "Pulp Fiction." I wouldn't even say that the narrative and visual style of the film is as slick and tantalizingly disjointed. At times, confusion seems to reign when ambiguity is called for, and there are still plenty of questions that remain by the film's end. Is that a flaw, or an invitation to keep watching the film until we "get it"? That will be the subject of debate among readers, though generally this film has been much praised.
One small point that detracted from my enjoyment was the character of Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), the "representative" of the mysterious Soze. Soze is supposed to be of Hungarian descent, and so, perhaps, is Kobayashi. But the name is Japanese-Hawaiian sounding, the accent is a bad imitation of a Pakistani or Indian cab driver, and the features Caucasian, with the skin looking as if it's been slathered in brown-face.
A bigger point of contention was a line that functioned, for me and my wife, like a spoiler that comes too early in the film. As Kint continues to weave the intricate story of what happened and police listen intently, he remarks, "The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." From that moment on, you suspect who the devil is in this story.
Now, if we accept Kint's narrative as unreliable, then the logic of anything contained within it is arguably defensible. It's part fiction, right? But what part is fiction and what part is fact? That adds to the texture of the film. The performances are great, the editing and pacing seems right-on, and the attempted puzzler is laudable. The problem with "The Usual Suspects" is that it tries to be too clever, and the ending all but makes the logic of earlier events seem, well, more suspect than usual.
The 1080p HD picture was transferred to a 25-gig single-layer disc using MPEG-2 technology at a fairly high bit-rate (20MBPS) and presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. The picture looks great, even in night scenes, with the right black levels to pull out the detail and minimize atmospheric graininess. The colors aren't as consistently saturated throughout the film, but that seems the result of editorial choices rather than any problem with the source materials.
The audio is also very, very good, with the featured track an English DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio and Spanish and French options in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish.
Sorry, fans. The only bonus feature is the trailer, and it doesn't even appear to be in HD.
At the risk of being thrown out of the cult that has anointed this film a favorite, let me just say that I liked it a lot, but didn't think it perfect. Though "The Usual Suspects" is an engaging film with great appeal and plenty of mental challenges, it's also a film that puzzles itself into a few corners. Is that enough to knock it down to a 7/10, which, at DVD Town is "a good film with more merits than not," or is it still an excellent film? Performances and slick editing and production values make it the latter. Besides, when the puzzle starts to break down, you can always do what Verbal does. Roll with it.