I'll always remember the first time that I saw "The Usual Suspects" in a theater in 1995 - as well as the 5th and 6th time that I went back to view the picture. Soon enough, the question "Who is Keyser Soze?" had lept into national conciousness, powered by highly deserved Oscar nominations for actor Kevin Spacey and writer Christopher McQuarrie as well as strong word-of-mouth as the film went from limited to wide release.
Singer's film starts off with an event that we're convinced is real. A man lays dying on the deck of a ship. We later learn this is Dean Keaton(Gabriel Byrne) , a one time corrupt cop who's turned to small time robbery. A masked figure walks up to him and casually kills him. We only learn this character's first name: Keyser. Flash backward to the narrative; we're meeting the small time band of crooks one by one: Keaton, Fenster, McManus, Hockney and finally, one Verbal Kint. Kint, a crippled small time crook, is the narrator.
The film focuses on the dialogue between Kint and Dave Kujan, a customs agent with the FBI. The film bounces back and forth between the flashback and the aftermath of the death of Keaton. The tale unfolds in two sets; in the past, we see the criminals plotting an emerald heist and in the other set, it's all over and the only one left is Verbal Kint, a man seemingly protected by "up on high by the prince of darkness" as forces are seemingly at work as he sits in the police station trying to set him free. It's the talents of Kevin Spacey as Kint and Chazz Palmentari as Kujan that makes the cat and mouse game they play as the dialogue unfolds completely fascinating.
There's several other factors at work. McQuarrie has respect for both the good and bad guys and makes them equally intelligent, which adds to the tension and enjoyment of the film. The dialogue is wonderfully well-written and characters nicely developed. The supporting performances are nothing short of fantastic. Stephen Baldwin, an actor who has - before and after - been best in Pauly Shore's "Bio Dome" and in an inspired performance as Barney Rubble in the "Flintstones" sequel, is perfectly menacing here in what is easily his best performance. Bencio Del Toro has gone on to build a fantastic career creating great characters and he really got a boost in the right direction with his portrayal of Fenster. Kevin Pollack, Suzy Amis and Pete Posthelwaite are also very effective in their roles. The movie is also assisted technically by Newton Thomas Siegel's wonderful widescreen compositions, as well as John Ottman's smooth editing and phenomenal score, which can go from sharp and tense to haunting and elegant.
"The Usual Suspects" is the kind of film that challenges and rewards us for following along, playing with our expectations of cast, conventions and concepts right up until the big payoff ending where we find out who really is "Keyser Soze".McQuarrie's dialogue deserved an Oscar and recieved it; it's one of the most wonderfully complex and rewarding thrillers in ages, and one of my very favorite movies of all time.
VIDEO: First released by Polygram in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen and then re-issued by MGM again in 2.35:1 non-anamorphic widescreen, MGM has done the film right by offering up a wonderful new anamorphic widescreen edition for this release, which, although not flawless, improves many of the concerns that plagued the previous editions. Newton Thomas Siegel's wonderful widescreen compositions look even better here, as sharpness and detail are noticably stronger on this release.
Still, a few very minor problems remain. Slight grain appears during a few pieces of the film, but the print seems wonderfully clear - a stray speck or two appears, but otherwise, the film remains clean. Edge enhancement is only very lightly seen once or twice and no pixelation was spotted.
The film does have a somewhat muted color palette, but warmer colors are seen on occasion. Colors look a bit crisper and richer on this release and don't appear smeared or otherwise flawed. Praise to MGM for offering a decidedly improved presentation that's the best I've seen this film look outside of a theater.
SOUND: "The Usual Suspects" was not presented in 5.1 theatrically, nor was it presented as such on the previous two DVD editions. MGM has finally created a new 5.1 soundtrack for this release, which pleases me enormously, because I simply think that John Ottman's score is flat-out brilliant and to have it opened out into the room so nicely is a thrill. There are further improvements in evidence throughout the movie: the surrounds offer some very nice, distinct ambient sounds and sound effects - as well as the score - and the explosions and action towards the end now sound more intense and powerful. Dialogue also sounds clearer here, as well. Overall, this is a considerable improvement over the 2.0 soundtrack.
MENUS: The menus on this release are similar to the prior release in that they use clips as backgrounds for most menus, but different clips than the previous release.
Commentary: This is a commentary from director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie. While some may be a bit dismayed that this is not a newly recorded track (it has appeared previously on the DVD editions, as well as a special video box set and I think the laserdisc, as well), I'm not sure the two could record a better commentary track than this one. I've listened to hundreds of commentary tracks over the past four years or so and I must say - this is easily one of my favorites. Singer and McQuarrie have known each other for a long time and have what's obviously a great friendship. Not only are they occasionally very funny (especially Singer's imitation of Palminteri) and playful in their discussion of the movie, they also provide a lot of interesting information about the production itself. This is a commentary I can listen to over and over again and still find entertaining - it's probably one of the best examples of a commentary that mixes entertaining chatter and information well.
Commentary: This is a newly recorded commentary from editor/composer John Ottman. Ottman provides an interesting discussion of the editing and music choices for the picture, along with some additional points about some technical elements of the film. As a solo commentary, there are some stretches of silence a bit later on in the track and a couple of places where the information overlaps what has been said on the other track, but I really did like this commentary.
Trailers/TV Spots: I think one of the reasons why I ventured into the theater in 1995 was because of the film's theatrical trailer, a tense and compelling couple of minutes that I still think is one of the strongest trailers I've seen. Here, the trailer is presented with an introduction by editor/composer John Ottman, who discusses the plans the studio had for the trailer before he was allowed to present his own version, which was the one - thankfully - used. Also included in this section - eight TV spots and the international trailer, which is quite good, as well.
Persuing The Usual Suspects: This is a new 24-minute documentary that includes interviews with Singer as well as the rest of the cast - mainly Spacey. There is no "plot" or "promotional" elements to this documentary - all of the information offered is substancial and informative as we are let in on all the details of trying to seek out the right actors for the parts, as well as the thoughts of the actors about joining an independent production helmed by a young director.
Doin' Time With The Usual Suspects: This new 26-minute documentary is a part 2 of the previous 24-minute documentary. Where that documentary was more of a look at the casting and pre-history of the film, this piece is a more interesting look at the production itself, complete with the problems and obstacles that faced the low-budget feature, as well as the happier memories of the work that the cast and crew went through. There's a lot of discussion of the infamous laughter during the lineup sequence, complete with a few outtakes of the scene.
Heisting Cannes with The Usual Suspects: This shorter new featurette follows the cast and crew of the movie to the Cannes film festival in 1995, where they were quite agressively persued by the press after the buzz on the film grew bigger. There's one particularly hilarious moment here when Pollack gets irritated after answering the same questions over and over again.
Gag Reel: This reel lasts several minutes and - I believe - is made up from material that was mentioned during the Singer/McQuarrie commentary track. There are some funny moments early on as the actors break-up during scenes, but the last quarter of the reel is a strange old-school style little rap video about Keyser Soze, which is kinda funny.
Keyser Soze-Lie Or Legend?: This new featurette deals with the development of the legend of Keyser Soze, from the development of the name to structuring the plot points to work the audience's attention about the story and details about who could be Keyser Soze. Interviews with cast and crew are provided and there are some very cool little details offered about the development of the twists and subtle clues.
Also: The film's original promotional featurette, 5 small deleted scenes with introductions from editor/composer John Ottman and hidden easter eggs (there are two additional featurettes that I've found so far, I'm not sure if there is more)
Final Thoughts: "The Usual Suspects" still remains, in my opinion, one of the best films of the past 10 years and simply, a masterpiece. The direction, performances and screenplay are absolutely top-notch, creating a riveting film that provides terrific twists and turns. MGM's new DVD edition provides improvements across the board - the picture and sound quality are noticably better than any previous home video release, while the supplements are informative and entertaining. A must-see.