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Bryan Singer
Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro
Christopher McQuarie

Five Criminals . One Line Up . No Coincidence.
Rated R for violence and a substantial amount of strong language.

Academy Awards:
Won for Best Supporting Actor-Kevin Spacey; Best Screenplay.

Widescreen 2.35:1
Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Surround 2.0
French Dolby Surround 2.0

Runtime: 106 min.
Price: $24.98
Release Date: 6/24/1997

• Audio Commentary With Director Bryan Singer and Writer Christopher McQuarrie
• Theatrical Trailer
• Previews
• Cast and Crew Biographies

Special Edition DVD
Score soundtrack

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The Usual Suspects (1995)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

In 1995, Kevin Spacey enjoyed what ball players would call a "career year." He began with Outbreak in the spring. While his performance in this film wasn't too memorable, the picture itself provided terrific entertainment and thrills and it remains director Wolfgang Petersen's most effective effort.

Later in the year came Spacey's frightening turn as serial killer John Doe in Se7en. His role was small but crucial; Spacey's Doe lived up to the reputation the character had built during the majority of the film when he remained unseen. Financially and critically, Se7en also enjoyed tremendous success; I feel it's the best movie of the 1990s.

Finally, Spacey received even more acclaim for his terrific role as criminal/apparent patsy Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. While I clearly prefer Se7en, Spacey's work in The Usual Suspects provided him with a much fuller range to play, and he acquitted himself remarkably well. In an extremely strong cast, he stood out and took home the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.

Of course, The Usual Suspects wasn't a one-man show; it offered many other compelling elements. While I've always been a cheapskate, that frugal tendency was well served by a strong complement of bargain "last run" movie theaters in my area by during the first half of the 1990s. I saw many, many films, but few of them came during their original theatrical runs. As such, I usually knew quite a bit about the movies I saw since they'd been out for a while. Once the local dollar theater went under in mid-1996, I started to attend many more first run pictures. I also tried to avoid hearing reviews prior to screenings of films I knew I wanted to see - you should witness the pains I'm going through to avoid any info about Attack of the Clones - but that wasn't the case when I saw The Usual Suspects in late 1995.

I had read the reviews about it that alerted potential viewers that The Usual Suspects was a demanding picture. According to these critics, you darned might need to take notes during that sucker if you wanted to follow it. Once I saw the movie, I deemed these notices to be overstatements, but maybe the fact that I knew the film was complex changed the experience for me. Had I gone in blind, I may have attended less strongly to the plot twists and I might have gotten a little lost. Whatever the case, The Usual Suspects clearly rewarded the attentive viewer more than was frequently the case.

Surprisingly, it also survives repeated viewings quite well. Films like this provide much of their excitement and intrigue from plot surprises, so they often become somewhat dull when watched again. That doesn't really happen here. Of course, some of the impact dissipates just because the film lacks surprise, but the movie actually gains some from the fact that the viewer can better attend to details missed the first time around. I've now watched The Usual Suspects seven or eight times over the years, and I still really enjoy it.

While credit certainly is due to Bryan Singer's crisp and succinct direction and Christopher McQuarrie's sharp and clever Academy Award winning script, the actors remain ultimate reason why The Usual Suspects continues to please even after many viewings. Spacey deserved all the accolades that came his way, but unfortunately, his status has somewhat eclipsed that of the rest of the cast, most of whom provided performances virtually on a par with his.

Best of the remaining cast remains Benicio Del Toro's bizarre and hilarious turn as mush-mouth criminal Fenster. Del Toro doesn't provide as real and full a character as did Spacey, but Fenster remains the most memorable and consistently entertaining aspect of the film. Gabriel Byrne, as apparently conflicted crook Keaton, comes closest to having a lead role in this ensemble piece. I'm not a huge fan of Byrne's work, but he effectively portrays the various impulses and emotions of Keaton quite well; his performance largely grounds the piece.

Stephen Baldwin (who I usually like) and Kevin Pollak (who I usually don't like) also provide invigorating performances in their somewhat one-note roles as the final two suspects. Chazz Palminteri and Giancarlo Esposito offer good work in their largely expository parts as law enforcement officials, and Pete Postlethwaite gives a typically quiet but compelling turn as somewhat mysterious agent. Really, the only acting that left me cold came from Suzy Amis as Keaton's love interest/lawyer. Maybe it's just because I don't much care for her in general, maybe it's because it's hard for a woman to stand out in a "man's movie," but I thought she came across as weak and uninteresting. Thankfully, her role doesn't ask her to do much and she in no way negates the bold impact of the film as a whole.

Were it not for Se7en, Iíd call The Usual Suspects the best movie of 1995. As it stands, the film must settle for second place. But itís a strong second, as Suspects offers a consistently intelligent, complex, and riveting piece of work.

The DVD Grades: Picture B- / Audio B / Bonus C+

The Usual Suspects appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen edition was viewed for this article. While good in many ways, the picture displayed some moderate problems that left it as a fairly mediocre transfer.

Sharpness seemed decent but inconsistent. Most of the time the movie looked reasonably crisp and well defined. However, many wider shots appeared somewhat soft and fuzzy. They never came across as terribly blurry, but the image lacked the definition I expected. Jagged edges and moirť effects caused some minor concerns, but I saw only a few small examples of edge enhancement. Print flaws were also very modest. I detected a few specks and some light grain appeared during a few interiors, but these caused no real concerns.

Colors looked fairly bright and vivid throughout most of the film. At times I thought they came across as somewhat flat and bland on a few occasions, but those examples occurred infrequently. Most of the time the tones were vibrant and clear. Black levels seemed reasonably deep and rich much of the time, but contrast was a moderate issue. At times the picture seemed too bright, and it acquired a slightly washed out look on occasion. This didnít appear to affect low-light situations, though, as they were appropriately thick but not overly heavy or too bright. Overall, The Usual Suspects provided a watchable but moderately flawed picture.

Though The Usual Suspects featured a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack theatrically, this DVD offered only a Dolby Surround 2.0 mix. Suspects was a very chatty film, and the soundfield remained oriented toward the forward spectrum. In that realm, music showed very good stereo spread and presence, while effects also demonstrated solid breadth and movement at times. During a lot of the film, those elements largely remained in the center, but at times, the mix came more to life and offered clean panning and a nicely blended track.

Surround usage tended to remain within the dimension of general reinforcement. The music worked especially well in that regard, as the rear speakers neatly enhanced the score. Effects also worked nicely in some scenes, especially those that involved gunfire or explosions.

Audio quality appeared good. Speech seemed warm and natural through the movie, and I discerned no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Effects appeared clean and accurate, and they boasted good bass response when appropriate; elements like foghorns or explosions offered solid oomph. Music worked best of all, as the score seemed clear and bright, and it also featured nice depth and dynamic range. The bass response sometimes came across as too loud, though. It seemed somewhat boomy and excessive at times. Overall, the mix worked well, but it wasnít anything special.

This DVD includes only a few supplements. The sole significant piece is an absolutely terrific audio commentary from director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie. Both men were recorded together for this running, screen-specific track. Apparently these guys have been friends for quite some time, a fact that comes through in the natural and easy manner they have with each other. It's a wonderfully loose and lively track as these guys crack on their film and each other while they provide a great deal of information about the production. This commentary is almost as entertaining as the film itself, which is no mean feat.

By the way, the overlapping comments at the end of the track have confused many people and made them wonder if they got a defective disc. Nope - itís supposed to be that way. The production echoes the movieís conclusion. Itís a funny and clever touch that ends this solid piece appropriately.

In addition, we find the filmís theatrical trailer plus some previews of other DVDs such as Dead Man Walking, Fargo and Four Weddings and a Funeral. We also get very brief biographies for director Singer as well as actors Palminteri, Spacey, Byrne, Baldwin, Pollak, Del Toro, and Postlethwaite. These add up to little real content.

The Usual Suspects remains a terrific film. Mysteries/thrillers donít get much better than this, as the flick fires on all cylinders. Crisply written, briskly directed, and wonderfully acted, thereís little about which I can complain, and God knows I love to complain! The DVD offers decent but unspectacular picture and sound plus only one substantial extra. This version is currently out of print and has been replaced by a new special edition from MGM. You should probably buy that one - itís superior in every way to this disc.

To rate this film go to the review of THE USUAL SUSPECTS: Special Edition.