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The Usual Suspects (DVD)
Member Name: SWSt
The Usual Suspects (DVD)
Advantages: Compelling, twisty, turny story, great acting
Disadvantages: Slightly overfussy direction at times, Lots of bad language, may be too slow-paced for some tastes
There are two things that make this film so strong: the plot and the lead actors. Starting with the plot, it's a twisty-turny, labyrinthine plot that often leaves you wondering what on earth is happening. Not that the plot is confusing - it's actually very clearly written and the basic structure of the film is fairly obvious. What's not clear, however, is how all the various pieces lock together and what the overall picture is. We actually know the conclusion of the story, as the film starts with the ending; the events leading up to that ending are then gradually filled in by a number of flashbacks. It's an interesting way of telling the tale, yet one which works very well: as you find out more and more, you get increasingly gripped by the story and anxious to find out more.
You'll actually spend most of the film in a slight state of bewilderment, knowing how it all ended, but totally unclear as to why. This, though, is one of those films where the pay-off comes in final ten minutes or so. Everything suddenly clicks into place and all is revealed in a brilliant set of sequences. Don't get the idea that this is one of those films that's only worth watching for the final ten minutes, though - it will entertain, confuse, bamboozle and delight throughout its running time. It's just that in those final ten minutes you suddenly realize how cleverly the entire film has been constructed. It's a "Wow" moment that ranks alongside some of the very best from cinema history.
The script is helped along by some excellent writing from Christopher McQuarrie. It really evokes the sense of dealing in a shady underworld where you are never quite sure who you can trust or that people mean what they say. The sense of mutual respect, yet quiet distrust between the lead characters is palpable, well-written and highly convincing. Cliques start to form, uneasy alliances are forged and broken and, although there is a sort of code of honour amongst the criminals, there is also a sense of a very uneasy truce. The dialogue has a special zing to it - earthy enough to be realistic, whilst also containing some genuine moments of humour as the characters needle each other or swap playful banter.
Hitched to the strong plot and script is an excellent cast on top form. Amongst the criminals, there's some top notch acting talent clearly enjoying themselves. Stephen Baldwin is excellent as the impetuous, headstrong McManus, always staying the right side of sterotype, but still managing to play the role of a rather headstrong and slightly imbalanced criminal effectively. Gabriel Byrne is a strong anchor, giving an air of tragedy to what could have been a clichéd role (the reformed criminal who can't resist turning back to his former life of crime for that "one last job").
It's Kevin Spacey, however, that steals the show. As Cerebral Palsy sufferer, Verbal Kint, it's through his eyes we piece everything together and gradually come to realise what is going on. He makes Kint a tragic, slightly pathetic, yet entirely sympathetic character. His criminal is not "nice" in the soft Hollywood cliché style (he's perfectly prepared to shoot a man in cold blood), but he is human enough to arouse our sympathies. With most actors, you'd look at such a role and say "it's the performance of a lifetime". It's testimony to Spacey's acting talent that, really, you expect no less from him,
The one mis-step, cast-wise, is the normally excellent Pete Postlethwaite as lawyer Kobayashi. Ludicrously dressed up as an Asian, he sports a dreadful Yorkshire/Indian/Welsh/Pakistani accent that seems to have a life of its own. It completely ruins any credibility his character might have had. If you want an Asian in a film, why not just cast one? Casting Postlethwaite comes across as rather condescending and brings a slightly unpleasant, marginally racist feel to proceedings. I'm sure this was accidental, but, excellent though he is, was Postlethwaite REALLY the right man for this particular job?
Enjoyable and entertaining though The Usual Suspects is, it won't be to everyone's taste.It will simply be too violent and amoral for some. It is, after all, about a bunch of hardened career criminals. They steal, they kill, they lie, they manipulate. They are not nice people and don't pretend to be. The Usual Suspects aims for gritty realism, rather than the usual "softened" image of Hollywood villains. You actually feel like these people would rob you blind or shoot you as soon as look at you. Some viewers may find that realistic view hard to stomach.
There are also a couple of minor mis-steps with the direction. For the most part, debut director Bryan Singer handles things extremely well; his style and tone perfectly matching the on-screen events. Just occasionally, however, he loses his discipline and resorts to a few bits of unnecessary camera trickery (superfluous pull-back shots or zooms), which are overly fussy and out of context with the rest of the film. He's clearly a director still learning his trade and feeling he has to make his mark on the film, rather than keeping things simple and letting the story tell itself. Having said that, these over-top camera flourishes are only very occasional (probably around half a dozen in the entire film), so they are not wholly distracting. Overall, for a first effort, Singer generally does a fine job and should be commended for such a brave first film.
For all its twisty-turny plot, The Usual Suspects is a hugely entertaining film that will keep you gripped throughout. Nor is it a one-watch wonder. The first time you watch it, you'll be blown away by the ending. You'll get just as much out of subsequent viewings, though, as you look back and realise how carefully it is all constructed and how many hints there are throughout the film. As Hollywood debuts go, they don't come much better.
The Usual Suspects
Director: Bryan Singer
Running time: approx. 106 minutes
© SWSt 2008
Summary: Superb debut from Bryan Singer