It rarely happens this way: a young filmmaker that misfires with his first movie goes on to make a huge impression with their follow up feature. Usually, it’s the other way around. Ask Steven Soderbergh about his sophomore jinx, Kafka. But every once in a while, it does happen: George Lucas gave us the terrific American Graffiti after suffocating us with THX-1138, Christopher Nolan made up for Following with Memento and Bryan Singer followed up his no-budget yawner Public Access with the smart 1995 crime thriller, The Usual Suspects.
After twelve years, I am sure we all know the general storyline of Suspects. But for those few who may not have seen the film yet, here is a quick, non-spoiler recap: Told in flashback by a mousy criminal named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), Suspects is the tale of how he and four other New York City career criminals (Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Torro and Kevin Pollak) are brought together in a lineup on some trumped up charges. The purpose of this little incarcerated get together, orchestrated by a shadowy underworld figure known as Keyser Soze, is to get the group to work together on a couple of jobs en route to pulling off a dangerous heist that will yield (for whomever survives the heist) $91 million worth of drugs and money.
On the surface, Suspects seems like a pretty average crime story. But thanks to Singer’s tight directing, a crackling script by Christopher McQuarrie (who nabbed an Oscar for his efforts) and the superb acting ensemble, which also included Pete Postlethwaite, Dan Hedaya and Chazz Palminteri, “Suspects,” as was “Pulp Fiction” a year prior, is a crime thriller that has the smarts to back up its slickness. The movie slowly seduces the viewer into the shadowy criminal underworld unfolding onscreen, only to blindsided us by an ending that hits you with enough twist and turns to make a repeat viewing not only desirable, but practically mandatory.
It is in the repeat viewings where The Usual Suspects really earns my respect (as if the aforementioned aspects weren’t enough). A lot of times, when you re-watch a thriller that prides itself in throwing narrative curveballs at you, it becomes easy on the second viewing to detect the inconsistencies and realize that the cinematic mind job pulled on you the first time was nothing more than a cinematic con job concocted by a group of people who didn’t know how to end their story.
Fortunately, Singer, McQuarrie and company did. They realized that no matter how interesting the characters were or how sharp the dialogue was, everything thrown at us at the conclusion had to be supported by what came before it or it would all fall apart. Is the film airtight with its cinematic sleight-of-hand? No. Then again, no film of this type is. If one really wanted to (as I am sure many have) sit down and find the gaffes, I am sure they could find tons. But I didn’t. I was having too much fun just watching the film and trying to sort things out. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, The Usual Suspects is a film that will have many scratching their heads in puzzlement when the end credits roll. But by pulling the cinematic wool over our eyes in such an entertainingly deceitful way, you don’t really feel all that bad for not having it all sorted out.
The Usual Suspects comes to Blu-ray courtesy of MGM Home Video by way of Twentieth Century Fox Home Video. In terms of the picture transfer (MPEG-2/1080p/2.35:1 theatrical ratio), the movie looks very, very nice. The print used for this transfer displays the occasional mark or speck here and there, but overall this 12-year old film is in tip-top shape. Colors and black levels are strong, and flesh tones are pretty much spot on. Every so often, usually in long shots, there is a slight softness to the picture. More often than not, though, the picture is sharp and details are excellent, with no compression artifacts to be found anywhere. This is the fourth home video incarnation (following Laserdisc, VHS and standard-definition DVD) of the film I have seen. It should come as no shock that the Blu-ray edition is by far and away the best looking of the lot.
What does the Blu-ray edition contain? One. Stinking. Trailer. Yes, there are also trailers for nine other Blu-ray releases from Fox Home Video (Flyboys, Windtalkers, Rocky, Bulletproof Monk, Phone Booth, Kiss of the Dragon, Speed and The Fantastic Four), but those aren’t extras. Those are advertisements, ones eating up precious disc space that easily could have gone to a half-hour look at the film. But hey, what do you want when you are dishing out forty bucks, the red carpet treatment? To be honest, yes.
I have to admit, I am a bit conflicted here. While I highly recommend both the film and its Blu-ray video and audio presentation, in good conscience I can’t recommend that you dish out $40 for it. When there are more than enough extras floating around in MGM’s vault to have been included on this release, the recommendation becomes even more difficult. If you have a video store near you that rents Blu-ray discs, I say give The Usual Suspects a rental. If you can find the disc from an online retailer (or Ebay) for $25 or less, then I say pick it up. But if neither of those options is available to you, I recommend that you give Keyser and the gang a pass for now.
– Shawn Fitzgerald