"The Usual Suspects"

Pulp fiction you can sink your teeth into, and fall in love with.

Published September 6, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"The Usual Suspects"
Directed by Bryan Singer
Starring Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Spacey
MGM/UA; widescreen (2.35:1) and full screen (1.33:1)
Extras: Feature-length audio commentary by Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie

For my money, "The Usual Suspects" was the pulp fiction of the '90s. This cunning entertainment follows five top felons who become a crew after they're tossed together in a lineup. The movie jumps back and forth from the aftermath of a catastrophic raid on a ship anchored in San Pedro, Calif., to the men teaming up in New York a mere six weeks before. It's the kind of picture that lays its cards on the table, then reshuffles and switches decks without anybody noticing.

On the audio track of the DVD, the director, Bryan Singer, and the writer, Christopher McQuarrie, explain how they balanced gunplay and mind games. They have equal amounts of fun discussing the foreshadowing of "Who Is Keyser Soze?" -- the evil genius who manipulates criminals and feds alike -- and deflating fans who swear they saw a dead giveaway to his identity.

The producers of "X-Men" (on which writer McQuarrie also worked, uncredited) said they hired Singer because of the killer instinct he showed with the ensemble acting on this film. I believe it. In "The Usual Suspects," everyone makes an immediate and lasting impression; it's no struggle to keep the characters straight when the filmmakers ring in "Rashomon"-like variations on the subplots.

Singer's murderers' row blends up-and-down performers with reliable vets. Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Pollak reach their peaks to date, while compulsively inventive Kevin Spacey does marvelous, jittery things he hasn't done before, and Benicio Del Toro steals the lineup with a strangled, whispery delivery that compels police to tell his character to speak English. (He is speaking English.) All these actors, not just Spacey, bring seize-the-day vitality to their hard-guy roles. Indeed, the two who seem to tickle Singer and McQuarrie the most are Del Toro and Byrne. They say that Del Toro transformed a conventional sidekick role into an endlessly intriguing character by envisioning his crook as a "black Chinese Puerto Rican Jew." And Singer is in awe of Byrne's ability to appear "effortlessly complex."

I loved hearing the filmmakers acknowledge their debt to David Mamet, but their work is niftier than any of Mamet's macho reveries. Slowly pulled into focus, its plot gains new shadings with every double-cross or blood splash, and makes an audience feel satisfied, not snookered, when the picture becomes dark-crystal clear.

Spacey plays a con artist with a bum leg and hand -- the weakest of the bunch, the one closest to Byrne (who has the biggest rep) and the sole survivor of an attempt to horn in on a supposed $91 million drug deal between Hungarians and South Americans. New York customs agent Chazz Palminteri is convinced that Byrne, an elite crook, was the ill-fated gang's mastermind and may be alive. He demands to grill Spacey even after the local D.A. cuts Spacey a cushy deal. Meanwhile, in a nearby hospital, the only Hungarian survivor of the ship says that he looked into the eyes of Satan -- or at least into the eyes of that barbaric criminal Keyser Soze. (Spike Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito, in a goatee that makes him look like Thelonious Monk, plays the FBI agent who badgers the survivor.) As the twin interrogations close like pincers, what kicks off as a caper movie becomes demonically complicated. Although "The Usual Suspects" never goes off the metaphysical deep end, the mythic character of Keyser Soze brings back the specter of encroaching evil that gave Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse movies the gleam of adult fairy tales.

The filmmakers take relationships and themes endemic to the crime film -- the brotherhood of thieves, the danger of entering women into criminal equations, the risk that in a world outside the law there's always someone more ruthless than you are -- and encourage their nitro-powered cast to blow them up real good. Baldwin and Del Toro match up risibly well as loyal, semipsychotic partners: They're unhinged in opposite ways, with Baldwin as a hothead and Del Toro as a slippery number who moves with such liquid self-effacement that he often registers as a blur. Pollak is air-clearingly funny as the down-to-earth, wisecracking hardware specialist, and Byrne, as a man society won't permit to go legit, finally nails the brooding-Celtic bit. The filmmakers use Byrne's plight, his romance with lawyer Suzy Amis and his bond with Spacey to add a veneer of poignancy.

But as they pretzel-twirl the narrative, they goose viewers to question their own softhearted responses. The movie takes its emotional key from Spacey's character, an obsessive talker (nicknamed "Verbal") who provokes distrust because he uses words as a smoke screen or a weapon. The men behind "The Usual Suspects" don't intellectualize or aestheticize pulp fiction. In the end, they let us see straight through it -- and make us love it anyway.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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