Like a contemporary “The Asphalt Jungle,””The Usual Suspects” is an ironic, bang-up thriller about the wages of crime. A terrific cast of exciting actors socks over this absorbingly complicated yarn that’s been spun in seductively slick fashion by director Bryan Singer. If Gramercy can distinguish this stylish entry from other crime films in the marketplace and build on good word-of-mouth, it should have a winner here.
Singer was the controversial co-winner of the grand prize at Sundance two years ago for his “Public Access,” an intriguing but muddled account of a stranger who comes to stir up trouble in a small town. What he’s done with “The Usual Suspects ” represents one of the most impressive qualitative jumps in memory from a first to a second film, such is the command and confidence he displays with this outing.
The pleasures begin from the opening moments, as John Ottman’s resplendent classical score backdrops some eyepopping Panavision images of an unseen man shooting Gabriel Byrne and starting a huge fire dockside in San Pedro.
The widescreen frame remains superbly filled for the entire picture, which then jumps back in time six weeks to begin piecing together the tricky details of a plot that will bring an assortment of characters together for the fateful conflagration in California.
A blown hijacking of a gun-running truck in New York results in a police roundup of suspects who include former corrupt cop-turned-thief Keaton (Byrne), the hot-headed McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the impudent Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the unpredictable Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and a crippled squealer appropriately named Verbal (Kevin Spacey).
Christopher McQuarrie’s ingeniously structured script then begins cutting back and forth between Gotham and the events leading up to the shipboard inferno , and an L.A. investigation, led by N.Y. cop Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and also pursued by Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito), in which surviving witness Verbal has been given immunity in exchange for information.
Back on the streets in New York, the gang comes together again to pull off, in a superbly staged sequence, a heist of $ 3 million in emeralds from a smuggler (Paul Bartel), a job that happens to expose the illegal activities of 50 of New York’s finest. The men then take their stash to an L.A. fence, but when the latter hires them for a robbery in which three men are killed it makes the gang beholden to a powerful crimelord whose well-spoken lawyer and front man Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) forces them to undertake the job of stopping a $ 91 million coke deal about to go down at the docks, leading to the climactic fireworks.
Quentin Tarantino excepted, McQuarrie has written one of the most elaborate, tangy and solidly satisfying original crime scripts in a long while. If there is a tad of a softening toward the end as the plot mechanics grind themselves out, it is a small price to pay for the great pleasures afforded by both the strong tide-pull of the storyline and the juicy dialogue.
Singer provides what are sometimes called real movie-movie moments, scenes filled with live-wire acting, dramatic confrontations, startling action and surprising twists. Pic moves along at just the right pace to keep the suspense tingling but also to permit the characterizations to take dimensional shape.
Every one of the thesps playing gang members makes a strong impression, although the performance that pops out is that of relative unknown Benicio Del Toro, whose unusual line readings and idiosyncratic mannerisms are mesmerizing. Stephen Baldwin’s muscular presence and fierce personality indicate much promise in tough, highly masculine roles, Byrne is at his ambivalent best, Kevin Pollak contributes some very funny sass and verve, while Spacey is terrific as the mysterious weak link in the chain of thieves.
Other standout turn comes from Postlethwaite, who plays a criminal fixer of consummate reserve and deadly good manners.
Behind-the-scenes contributions are aces, especially Newton Thomas Sigel’s rich, large-canvas cinematography and the work of John Ottman who, in an unusual pairing, both edited the picture and composed the superior score.