Five thieves, rounded up on suspicion of hijacking in New York, stand in a police lineup. Seen that one before, huh? Just wait. Each thug is asked to step forward and say, "Hand me the keys, you rucking cocksucker." Each does as he's told. But the variations in the line readings reveal these thugs as master thespians. Hold the thought. Nothing is remotely usual about The Usual Suspects.
Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the smartass, speaks first, then the simmering McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and his manic Latino partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro). Then it's cool-hand Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-cop gone bad. Last up is Kint (Kevin Spacey), spat on as a stoolie gimp with a debilitating palsy who is out of his league with these killers. They call him Verbal for short; he can't stop talking, especially if it'll save his ass. Six weeks later, talk will mean exactly that. The film's framing device is Verbal's testimony to U.S. customs agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). You say that "KOO-yan." In this mind-bender of a mystery, even pronunciation counts.
On the surface, Suspects doesn't sound like much. Director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie have only one other feature on their rap sheet, Public Access, and although the film won a prize two years ago at Sundance, it never got released. For stars, it throws the meager bone of a Baldwin brother and Byrne, whose career has been sliding since his 1990 peak in Miller's Crossing. You can't help thinking: no budget, no buzz, no drawing power, no chance.
Seeing the movie changes all that. The Usual Suspects is the freshest, funniest and scariest crime thriller to come along since Pulp Fiction. It's manna in a summer desert that reached an apogee of absurdity with Kevin Costner's Waterworld, a record waste of $200 million that features villains on jet skis doing postmodern Esther Williams water ballets. The entire budget for Suspects is probably less than the cost of equipping Costner's mariner with gills that look like vaginas. If justice prevails, Suspects will become a sleeper, a film that wins audiences despite the odds.
Singer, 29, may not be in Quentin Tarantino's league, but he and McQuarrie -- pals since high school in New Jersey -- know how to reinvigorate a tired genre in high style. McQuarrie's taut, wickedly twisted script checks in with the most convoluted film-noir plot since William Faulkner confounded audiences 50 years ago with The Big Sleep. Still, putting the pieces together is a kick, and Singer's sensationally assured direction exerts a riptide pull. A whammy of a surprise ending makes you want to see the film again to see if Singer pulled a few fast ones to make the pieces fit. Instead, Suspects rewards multiple viewings because the slippery characters and shifting points of view add up to a film of hypnotic and haunting resonance.
The ultimate big bang is an explosion on a dock littered with dead bodies, in San Pedro, Calif., Keaton and his boys were meant to lift $91 million in cocaine off a boat. Things go awry -- no fair telling how. As Keaton lies bleeding on the pier, the shadowy figure of a man moves toward him, making a show of lighting a cigarette with an antique lighter. We can't see the man's face, but Keaton sees him clearly just before taking a bullet. Registering shock, anger and defeat, he utters one word: "Keyser."
The police find two survivors: a Hungarian, charred and near death in a hospital, and Verbal, spilling his guts to agent Kujan in a Los Angeles interrogation room. Immunity is his reward for talking. And besides, his friends are dead. He saw Keaton get shot. But did he see him die? Kujan, played with growling wit by a never-better Palminteri, isn't so sure.
And then there's the matter of Keyser, as in Keyser Soze. Verbal describes the mystery man as "the devil himself," not just a Turkish narcotics czar but a mythic creature of evil. Soze once returned home to find his wife raped by his Hungarian rivals and his kids held hostage. To show the force of his will, Soze killed his own children and then their captors. Later, he found the rest of the mob, killed their wives and their kids and even people who looked at him funny. "Then like that," says Verbal, blowing a poof of air at Kujan, "he's gone."
Singer plays Soze for chills (we see Soze's family slaughtered) and for laughs (no one seems to pronounce his name the same way), and hits both marks. As the dying Hungarian tries to describe Soze to a sketch artist, Verbal insists that he and his gang dealt with Soze only through his attorney, Kobayashi (an indelibly icy Pete Postlethwaite), who pressured them into doing the coke job by threatening to kill Keaton's lawyer girlfriend, Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis), and castrate McManus' young nephew.
In flashbacks, Singer shows the five partners in crime pulling intricate jobs that involve an emerald heist, a sting operation against corrupt cops and the climactic shootout on the docks. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel lends the jolts a formal wide-screen beauty. Cheers also to the film's whiplash editing and richly evocative score, both the work of the gifted John Ottman.
The cast carries the emotional ball. The Usual Suspects is acted to sweet perfection. Baldwin and Pollak engage in teasing homoerotic banter that ripples with psychosexual undercurrents. Newcomer Del Toro is a star in the making, using slurred speech and spastic body movements to nail the jitters beneath Fenster's studly bravado. Whatever this guy is doing, you can't take your eyes off him; he's electrifying. And Byrne, brooding and brutal, turns Keaton into an enigma as hypnotic as Keyser Soze. Just for the record, though, Suspects is Spacey's show. It's Verbal's torrent of words and the flickers of fear and cunning dancing in his stoolie eyes that keep us riveted as the plot goes its Byzantine way. Spacey's balls-out brilliant performance is Oscar bait all the way, a match for his priceless turn earlier this year as a pit-bull Hollywood producer in Swimming With Sharks. The Usual Suspects is just the movie for an actor who's full of surprises and an audience fully up to the challenge.