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Usual Suspects (4K Ultra HD), The
There are some thrillers that remain effective even if viewers know many of their secrets. Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects is such a film. Even though I cannot recreate my first-viewing surprise when the film laid its cards on the table, the clever screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie; able direction by Singer in his second feature; and knockout performances from the diverse cast cement the film as one of the best thrillers of the 1990s. Who is Keyser Soze? The Los Angeles Police Department and FBI try to find out after they discover dozens of bodies on a ship in San Pedro Bay in what appears to be a drug heist gone wrong. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) is one of only two survivors and recounts the events leading up to the massacre. Several weeks earlier, Kint and fellow criminals Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro) and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) are placed in a NYPD police lineup with Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), who is trying to go straight. When the men are let go, they decide to stick it to the police by exposing corrupt officers providing transportation for smugglers. Their work is noticed, and they are given the opportunity to participate in a $91-million job involving Argentinian drug runners in Los Angeles. The men soon learn that they may be working for the mysterious Keyser Soze, a deadly criminal of legend who may not even be real.
The film's explosive opening sets the stage for the subsequent flashbacks, and Verbal explains to the cops the complex events leading up to the murders of his friends. The sit-down might have been brief but Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) wants to know more about Keaton, a corrupt ex-cop. Kujan is familiar with Keaton from previous investigations and knows Keaton has faked his own death before, so he grills Verbal on Keaton's involvement in the seemingly botched heist. Thus, viewers are treated to backstory on how the crew came to Los Angeles, and see that Keaton was towing the line and living with his attorney girlfriend Edie (Suzy Amis) before he was dragged into the lineup. The film's title implies that it involves a group of typical crooks and con artists. In a way it does, but each of these men is quite unusual, and much of the entertainment here comes as the characters and their stories are unwrapped. These men have come together by seeming happenstance and each thinks he is the alpha dog; yet none is prepared to face off against the mythical Soze.
Singer and McQuarrie delight in taking men that are so untrusting, so cautious in their crimes and sending them hurdling toward a giant trap. At nearly thirty years old, The Usual Suspects has been discussed to death; but at least the movie that sparked so much conversation is actually enjoyable. The film is deceiving without being deceptive; tricky without being unnecessarily convoluted. The acting is excellent across the board, particularly by Byrne and Spacey, who has spent the last several years battling troubling sexual assault allegations. It is exciting to watch the somewhat lesser, or at least less famous, actors like del Toro, Palminteri and Baldwin square off with the heavyweights successfully, too. McQuarrie has become known for partnering with Tom Cruise and directing films like Mission: Impossible - Fallout, but his script here is the standout. The twisty narrative, mixed with Singer's direction and John Ottman's gifted editing, creates an electric experience.
Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor here, and I think it is more than justified. Although this is an ensemble crime thriller, Spacey's character anchors the movie and keeps the narrative rolling. Under the watch of a less-effective actor, The Usual Suspects may have faltered. I also admire the film for wearing many different genre hats. At various points it weaves between detective drama, supernatural thriller, black comedy, and heist action film. Such an ambitious narrative in the hands of less-capable filmmakers may also have faltered. At just 106 minutes, The Usual Suspects packs a lot in and wastes little time doing it. Smart, expertly assembled, and, above all, entertaining, the film retains its sterling reputation nearly three decades later.
THE 4K ULTRA HD:
One of the downfalls of receiving an early Blu-ray release was that the quality likely was not the absolute best. The Usual Suspects received a few underwhelming HD releases and repackagings over the years, but Kino has now released a definitive 4K version with a HEVC/H.265/2160p transfer at 2.39:1 with Dolby Vision and HDR10 from a native 4K source. Remastered from the original camera negative and color graded and approved by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, the 4K transfer is certainly an impressive upgrade over previous home-video releases. Although I try not to read much about discs I review beforehand so I can give an untainted opinion, I have seen some grumbling about the color timing on this 4K release online. I did not see the film theatrically when I was nine years old, and I am not so intimately familiar with previous versions to call myself an expert on its appearance. That said, I am going to trust Sigel knows what he is doing and that the film is supposed to look like this, whether previous versions did or not. That said, colors are beautifully enhanced, strikingly bold, and nicely saturated. Fine-object detail and texture are greatly improved. Close-ups reveal facial features and set dressings in intimate detail, while wide shots are crisp, clean, and deep. Black levels also are enhanced, and shadow detail is pleasing. The film looks great in motion, and the grain appears natural. Highlights are kept in check, skin tones appear healthy, and I noticed no major issues with aliasing.
The soundtrack is offered in 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio variants with optional English SDH subtitles. The surround mix is quite effective. Although this is a dialogue-heavy film, the sound design is excellent, and the track nails the atmosphere. Dialogue is crisp, clear, and uncrowded, and the surrounds are frequently used for dialogue and effects pans. Gunfire, explosions, and other action effects also traverse the sound field and rumble the subwoofer. I noticed no issues with feedback or distortion. Ottman's score is given appropriate weight.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc release includes the 4K disc and a Blu-ray. The discs are packed in a black case that is wrapped in a slipcover. Both discs contain an Audio Commentary by Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie and an Audio Commentary by John Ottman. The remainder of the extras are on the Blu-ray. You get one new item: The Devil in the Details: Interview with Newton Thomas Sigel (16:33/HD), in which the cinematographer discusses the look of the film, the shoot, and effects. Archival bonus features include an Interview with John Ottman (17:44/SD); Pursuing the Suspects (24:58/SD) featurette; Doin' Time with the Suspects (26:47/SD); Keyser Soze - Lie or Legend (18:38/SD); Heisting Cannes with The Usual Suspects (4:14/SD); an EPK Making-Of (6:40/SD); Deleted Scenes (9:24/SD); a Gag Reel (7:11/SD); Interview Outtakes (3:01/SD); and promotional materials.
One of the better thrillers of the 1990s, The Usual Suspects finds its way home on 4K Ultra HD thanks to Kino. The film is an entertaining, genre-hopping ride with an excellent script from Christopher McQuarrie, solid direction by Bryan Singer, and an all-star cast. The newly remastered film looks and sounds great here, and the disc includes a number of recycled bonus features and one new interview. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.