Bryan Singer's 'The Usual Suspects' is an elaborate cinematic con where the victim is not only surprised that he's been conned, but that he admires the con artist.
It was the summer of 1995, and Hollywood's summer-season dance card was filled with oversold, overblown films like 'Waterworld,' 'Judge Dredd' and 'Batman Forever.' And while 'Il Postino' kept the cineaste crowd buzzing, there was really nothing staking out the middle ground -- a movie smart enough for adults and cool enough for older kids. That is, until 'The Usual Suspects' became a surprise hit thanks to its hard-boiled dialogue, macho posturing and director Singer's ability to make a dense, dizzying storyline (almost) completely comprehensible. And while it's certainly possible to enjoy the film by letting it simply wash over you, the real fun comes in accepting Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie's challenge, which requires the viewer to unravel a complicated, tightly-folded origami of a plot.
The film is told partially in flashback by Verbal Kint (Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey), the only witness to a San Pedro boat explosion the previous evening. As he explains to Customs Agent Dave Kojan (Chaz Palminteri), Kint met four other "usual suspects" in a police lineup six weeks earlier. In addition to Verbal, the group consists of ex-cop Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack) and Fenster (Benecio Del Toro). While in lockup, they decide to pull a job together, which eventually takes them to Los Angeles, where they're forced into the employ of Hungarian crime lord Keyser Soze, who is so mythic a figure that no one is sure he really exists. Of course, in Singer's tightly-coiled world, nothing happens by coincidence and Soze really does exist... or does he?
Summarizing 'The Usual Suspects' is a bit like writing Cliffs Notes for 'The Big Sleep' on the back of a cocktail napkin. But that's what's most impressive about Singer in this film -- he has compete mastery over what he's trying to accomplish. You may not understand it yourself, but at least you have total confidence that Singer does. And allowing Del Toro to perform with a ridiculous, practically unintelligible accent shows an amazing amount of courage for a director attempting a mainstream breakout.
Of course, all lines lead to the celebrated ending, which comes like a sucker-punch to the gut. Unlike the ending in 'The Sixth Sense,' after which everything that came before it fell into place, the ending here makes the viewer want to see the whole movie again to further understand the endlessly complicated story. Indeed, watching the film multiple times is a consistently rewarding experience, presenting performance nuances and bits of information lost in a single viewing.
'The Usual Suspects' won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Singer went on to direct the surprisingly good 'X-Men' films, and the surprisingly bad 'Superman Returns.' But his best movie remains 'The Usual Suspects,' a mystery where lies -- not clues -- lead to the truth.
'The Usual Suspects' has made a few trips to DVD over the years, but this Blu-ray release is by far the best yet. Presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 video, this is an excellent transfer that offers a noticeably superior upgrade over any previous video version.
Granted, the source print is not absolutely pristine, but it's close. There are a few speckles here or there, but for a movie now over a dozen years old (and produced on a fairly low-budget in the first place), I was still impressed. Somehow the presentation remains quite natural, despite the use of softening filters and some very high-key lighting (lots of bright white overhead spots, a la classic film noir). Colors are supple, from the very vivid red of Benecio Del Toro's horrific shirt to the steely gray-blues of the Chazz Palminteri and Kevin Spacey interrogation room scenes. Detail remains quite strong -- there is real depth and pop to the image, with only a slightly dated look to some of the exteriors. I was also relieved that the transfer remained so sharp yet without any apparent edge enhancement -- the image is smooth and clean throughout. No significant disappointments here -- 'The Usual Suspects' looks great.
Keizer Soze and friends get the DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 treatment on Blu-ray. Despite all the fancy wordplay, however, even such high-resolution audio can't do much to jazz up the proceedings. 'The Usual Suspects' sounds just fine, but nothing more.
To be fair, as it is easy to forget given how much success it has generated over the years, this low-budget film is really an indie movie. The original DVD mix was only 2.0; the film was subsequently remixed for a recent two-disc special edition, which was noticeably superior. However, this DTS HD upgrade isn't that dynamic. The soundstage was nicely opened-up with the remaster, which is immediately apparent with the opening sequence and the more action-oriented Keizer Soze moments. The rears have a fairly strong presence, with frequent bursts of discrete effects. Low bass is supple, with spacious mid-range and clean highs. Dialogue too, has been nicely boosted.
That said, the mix can hardly compare to, say, a 'Planet of the Apes' (which Fox is releasing on Blu-ray the same day as 'Suspects') -- 'Suspects' just isn't active enough, or consistently immersive. Still, it holds up nicely given its age and budget, so I can't imagine fans will be disappointed with this one.
What is up with MGM? Their support of supplemental features on Blu-ray has been abysmal (sorry, a feature-loaded 'Flyboys' just isn't enough), and the steep $39.95 list price they keep charging for bare bones catalog titles just isn't worth it. Such sins are even more egregious on a title like 'The Usual Suspects,' which is considered a modern classic and saw an extensive DVD release chock full of extras. To top it off, there are at least eight theatrical trailers for other MGM titles (including one for 'Suspects'), all in full 1080 HD video. That's nearly 30 minutes of material -- so why not use that space for some standard-def extras? It would seem like MGM is planning to double dip these early Blu-ray titles at a later date, which really smacks of early adopter exploitation. I guess Keizer Soze would be proud?
'The Usual Suspects' is a twisty, curvy thriller and the best modern crime noir of our time. Too bad MGM gives this Blu-ray release the shaft in terms of extras. At least the transfer rates highly, but is it enough to justify a $39.95 list price? Not at all. MGM, you need to start doing a lot better in offering real value for money.