The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Some films have their aura pushed to another level because of some special secret contained within. Consider the surprise endings of movies like the original Planet Of The Apes, or The Empire Strikes Back, or The Crying Game, or The Sixth Sense. Much of the success of these films depends on these secrets staying carefully guarded, or else the impact of the film is lessened or completely mitigated. I mean, if you knew that Luke Skywalker found the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand, and that she had a penis and was really his father, but it all didn’t matter because he found out that he was just a ghost, wouldn’t it ruin the movie?
One such film is The Usual Suspects. It’s now seven years old, and considering this is a review of the DVD it’s a good bet you’ve already seen it. I’m not going to spoil the surprise. It’s going to kill me to do so, and I’m not going to be able to discuss the greatest aspects of this film, but I’m going to exercise self-control.
Five career criminals — Hockney (Kevin Pollak), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio Tel Toro), Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) — are brought in by the police for a freight truck hijacking. The thing is, none of them did it (or at least own up to doing it). However, it’s a great excuse to get five master crooks in the same place at the same time, and the five join forces to pull a couple very difficult jobs. That catches the attention of Keyser Soze, a mythical figure in the underworld. Soze forces them into a suicidal mission where all but Verbal Kint are killed. He’s captured by the police, but most of the charges against him are dropped. A Customs agent, Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), sits down with Verbal to go over all the details of the group’s working relationship from the time of the lineup until the rest were dead.
Have you ever tried to write a plot summary of a movie like Pulp Fiction or The Usual Suspects? Do you know how difficult it is to write a linear description of a nonlinear storyline?
As I mentioned previously, The Usual Suspects is now seven years old. It’s interesting reviewing things on DVD rather than theatrically, because you have the benefit of hindsight. How has it been embraced by film lovers? How has this movie affected that which came after it? What effect has it had on the careers of its participants? If it’s something you’ve seen numerous times, has your respect deepened for the film, or has time dimmed its light?
For as often as I went to the movies in the mid-1990s (the summer of 1994 I saw True Lies, The Mask, and Speed three times apiece), I don’t think I saw The Usual Suspects until video. However, when I did see it, it grabbed me. There is a mastery at work that elevates it from yet another crime caper to something almost operatic in scope. It filmed around the same time as Pulp Fiction, yet it sat on a shelf and was released late summer in 1995. It was not nearly as successful in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s nonlinear, hip independent action film. Maybe audiences expected the same, because The Usual Suspects grossed only $23 million to Pulp Fiction’s $108 million. And I have to admit: I saw Pulp Fiction in the theater, but not The Usual Suspects. Wait, now I know how I first saw it! I taped The Usual Suspects when it was on a pay cable station. I must’ve taped it after something, because — well, I don’t want to give away too much here, but toward the end of the movie, there’s a shot of Chazz Palminteri running out of the police station. Right there, the tape cut off. Argh! I knew something — something big — was about to happen, but it wasn’t until I could get to the video store and rent it that I found out what.
The Usual Suspects feels like a directorial debut, even though it was actually the second film for Bryan Singer. His first was a small thriller named Public Access (it’s available on DVD, if you’re interested). For his second film, he brought along writer Christopher McQuarrie and editor/composer John Ottman from his debut. For their first films, directors seem to be more willing to be daring or flashy, both of which Singer does here. He doesn’t give in to the temptation of wacky camera angles, but there’s the creative framing, idiosyncratic story, mucking about with audience’s perceptions, and alterations of the time line that you often see in first features from directors in the 1990s to today. (Think about it…The Sixth Sense? Not the first feature from M. Night Shyamalan, but the first anyone saw. American Beauty? Sam Mendes’ first film. Let’s not even mention Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich!) It’s a shame that his films to date haven’t shown the verve of The Usual Suspects. Apt Pupil couldn’t gross its budget at the box office. X-Men had promise, but Singer’s style is nowhere to be seen and the movie just wasn’t particularly fun. Next he’s doing the X-Men sequel, uncreatively titled X2. I hope it’s better than the first one. I think Singer had the promise to be a dark director like David Fincher, but he missed the boat somewhere. I hope he fulfills his potential someday.
Speaking of unfulfilled potential, there’s Christopher McQuarrie. This guy won the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award for The Usual Suspects, yet he’s written only one film that’s made it to the screen since then, 2000’s The Way Of The Gun, which he also directed. It’s a very good but not great film, with a script is nearly as tight and well-written as The Usual Suspects. He’s been mentioned in conjunction with a few other projects — Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Alexander the Great, a big-screen version of the TV shows The Prisoner and The Green Hornet, a horror flick called Chimera — but nothing has come to fruition.
Great writing is nothing without great acting, and here we get a few actions doing their very best work. If there’s one thespian revelation in this film, it’s that a Baldwin brother can do something resembling acting. Better yet, Stephen Baldwin can do something resembling acting. I think it’s more that Singer’s direction and McQuarrie’s writing eked a good character portrayal out of him than any inherent talent, but it’s still worthy of note. This was the film that made me notice Benicio Del Toro, perhaps because I never saw him in Licence To Kill or any of the other eight movies he made between that Bond film and The Usual Suspects. His role as Fenster doesn’t show the acting chops we’d later see in Traffic, but it does show the coolness we’d see in Snatch or The Way of the Gun (and to be honest, I’d rather watch either of those movies more than Traffic). Kevin Pollak displays the easy humor that makes him one of the best comic reliefs in thinking person’s films — see A Few Good Men and, um…unfortunately, he’s not often cast in thinking person’s films — see End Of Days, Wayne’s World 2, or freakin’ She’s All That. That leaves Kevin Spacey and Gabriel Byrne. The Usual Suspects was a marked turn in Spacey’s career, when he went from comedic supporting roles to more serious leading ones, but always with that droll sense of humor. He won an Oscar for his role as Verbal Kint, and watching his nuanced performance, especially on repeat viewings, is one of the joys of this film. However, I think Gabriel Byrne was equally deserving of an Oscar, perhaps more. Looking through his filmography, it appears I’ve only seen him in one other movie, the Steve Martin drama A Simple Twist of Fate, but that’s only because I’m waiting (not very patiently) for Fox to release Miller’s Crossing on DVD. Byrne is the center of the film. Keyser Soze’s presence may hang over the story, but Dean Keaton is the reason everything happens. Dave Kujan wasn’t interviewing Verbal for tidbits about a mythical European crime lord; he was trying to determine if a crook he had been tailing for years had really died. Keaton’s story is tragic, full of the pathos of a man trying to make his life better and failing miserably. We see the pain it causes him to slip back into the life of crime that once ensnared him, to betray the love and trust of the woman trying to reform him (played by Suzy Amis, who, by the way, is the current spouse of director James Cameron), and it’s made all the more bitter because we know what fate is going to befall him on that dock.
Going back to what I said earlier, how has the last seven years affected The Usual Suspects? Fortunately, it did not become the siren for imitation that Pulp Fiction became. I can’t think of a single film since that has raised the bar for this genre any higher than the mark set by The Usual Suspects. No film has managed to assemble such an array of second-tier talent and made their work into something that would make A-listers jealous. In a way, it’s sad, because the world could use a few good crime thrillers made with genuine surprises and real intelligence, rather than cheap surprises and faux movie intelligence. It’s also disheartening that Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie haven’t risen to this level of excellence, because it makes you yearn to see their talents put to good use. Heck, after The Usual Suspects and The Way of the Gun, I’d pay to see anything written by McQuarrie, even if it is a TV remake.
This is MGM’s second DVD release of The Usual Suspects, the third overall. It was first released in 1997 by PolyGram, and then that disc was re-released in 1999 under the MGM label after they acquired the PolyGram catalog. It had both non-anamorphic widescreen and full-frame versions of the film, and featured a nice commentary track with Bryan Singer and Chris McQuarrie. For this new “Special Edition” release, MGM has expanded that original release a bit. It still features both widescreen and full-frame versions of the film, except now they are one separate layers on a single side of the disc and the widescreen version is anamorphically enhanced. However, there is little discernable difference between the old release’s video quality and the new version. Both have comparable average bitrates that are on the low side — 4.80Mbps for the new release versus 4.43Mbps for the original. The low bitrate can cause distracting pixelization in gradients and background details. Flesh tones are noticeably reddish when compared to the old release. I didn’t notice much in the way of edge enhancement. All told, the anamorphic enhancement is the only improvement in the video department. Audio has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1. It has nice presence, particularly in John Ottman’s melancholy score. Bass levels are beefy, adding to the film’s effectiveness, and surrounds are put to occasional but practical use. At least in this regard, the technical details best the original release.
For extra features, we get two commentary tracks, featurettes, two trailers, eight TV spots, deleted scenes, and a gag reel. The Singer/McQuarrie commentary from the original DVD is here, as well as a new one by composer/editor John Ottman. Singer and McQuarrie are easy to listen to and are quite free with details about the film, its inception, and its filming. Ottman’s track is also enjoyable and informative. Ottman is nearly as responsible for the excellence of the film as Singer and McQuarrie — there is no fat in the film, and his score fits perfectly — and his input is equally invaluable. The featurettes add up to about 80 minutes, and are peppered with both new interviews and ones from the film’s release. There are five deleted scenes that can be watched together or separately, all introduced by John Ottman. None of the scenes are particularly revealing, so it’s not like they’re missing from the film (like I said, this film has no fat). The gag reel runs about seven minutes, and it was made originally exclusively for the cast and crew, but as explained by Bryan Singer in the intro, was included to make the purchase of the disc worthwhile. About halfway through it shows what it would’ve been like if The Usual Suspects had been one of those hip, cool Pulp Fiction rip-offs, complete with a music video montage set to a cheesy rap-like song. Funny stuff.
With any double-dip, you have the inevitable question: If you have the original version, is it new disc worth spending your money again? With The Usual Suspects, I’m going to give a yes, but with reservations. If you have a widescreen set, the anamorphic widescreen is certainly attractive, though the image quality isn’t much of an improvement otherwise. For fans of the film, John Ottman’s commentary track should definitely be given a viewing and the featurettes are also worth a spin. Does that add up to a purchase or a weekend rental? You decide.
I’ve heard that C.S. Lewis is the original source of the quote I included in The Charge. The webmaster of Into the Wardrobe said it was in the preface of The Screwtape Letters, but I can’t find it there in my edition. Judge Erick Harper said he thought it might be in Mere Christianity, but he didn’t know for sure. Everywhere I looked in a Google search that mentioned both that quote and C.S. Lewis on the same page didn’t do so in relation to each other. Can anyone help me out?
[Editor’s Note: Later, thanks to reader Dave Boehi, I discovered that the quote wasn’t from C.S. Lewis, it was a revision of something from Charles Baudelaire: “The devil’s cleverest ruse is to make men believe that he does not exist.” Thanks for clearing this up!]