Reservoir Dogs (1992), of course, is the epochal film by Quentin Tarantino that borrowed most of its ideas from the bank of movie history, and then put such a hip, self-aware spin on the proceedings that it pretty much revolutionized American moviegoing, if not filmmaking. Rashomon (1950) is the epochal film by Akira Kurosawa that told the story of a crime four different ways, from four different perspectives, and thoroughly debunked the veracity that had previously been ascribed to stories told with the motion picture camera. Like Rashomon, The Usual Suspects shows us key events only in flashback, and since we're hearing the narrative from a con man who's being interrogated by a cop, we -- like the cop -- have to wonder whether he's telling the truth. Like Reservoir Dogs, it gives us an assemblage of hoods who would be fairly distasteful and uninteresting if not for a skewed code of values, and relies on snappy dialogue and character tics to build their personalities.
The problem comes when screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie tries to cross Kurosawa with Tarantino, and winds up subverting both of them in search of a big payoff that apes Hitchcock. Director Bryan Singer works so hard at evoking an air of world-weary fatalism that it's a shame to find out, at the end, that the little things -- like characters and story -- don't matter as much as the oh-so-clever denouement.
The movie opens "last night," as a subtitle explains, when some kind of a gunfight has ended with the death of nearly everyone onboard a ship that's been burned to a crisp at the docks. In the "present day," customs agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri, who was so good in Bullets Over Broadway but has less to do here) is grilling a survivor of the shootout nicknamed Verbal (Kevin Spacey) about the events that transpired since he and four other ex-convicts were gathered "six weeks ago" for a police lineup having something to do with a hijacked shipment of guns. The rest of the movie switches between Kujan's interrogation of Verbal and Verbal's recollection of how he and his co-conspirators found themselves in the middle of a $91 million deal at the docks. Among the neat tricks that this structure allows (it actually reminds me most of Citizen Kane) is a couple of scenes where Kujan gets a new lead on the case during real time and then bursts back into the room to pull his new knowledge on Verbal, who's visibly agitated that the cop knows so much.
What's Verbal got to hide? Well, that's unclear until we eventually learn about a mythical Turkish figure who's putting these hapless characters through their paces, and who Verbal fears will have him killed if Verbal spills the beans. This figure, named Kaiser Zose (sp? My kingdom for a press kit!), is probably the movie's most interesting creation. The only one of Verbal's companions who's of much interest is Gabriel Byrne's Keaton, the ex-con with a heart of gold who's trying to build a new life for himself. Of course, we've seen this character about a zillion times before (most recently played by David Caruso in Barbet Schroeder's Kiss of Death), but Byrne is endearing, and his lawyer girlfriend Edie (played by Suzy Amis, who has a small role, but a knack for picking interesting scripts) is testimony to his new domestic impulses. The script goes out of its way to paint Byrne's Keaton as a decent man trapped in a noirish downward spiral, and the most intriguing part of the movie may have to do with the questions that begin to swirl about his real intentions. Kevin Spacey's performance as Verbal is thoroughly engaging, which is fortunate, since he's the real storyteller. It's the rest of the gang, who act more like stereotypes from made-for-cable thrillers, that turn us off from caring too much about their plight.
Is it spoiling anything to say that this movie's raison d'etre is the surprise ending? I haven't seen a critic yet keep his or her mouth shut about it (shades of The Crying Game), and your enjoyment of the movie may well hinge on exactly how much you appreciate the plot twists. The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that's terrifically entertaining, but leaves you somewhat cold afterward. I can't imagine sitting through it a second time, although some folks say that's exactly what they did, to make sure they got everything straight. The dialogue is pretty stiff (with Palminteri's standard-issue whodunit monologue near the end a stand-out example), and it becomes hard to care about characters when we know the movie really doesn't.
The editing (by John Ottman) is very interesting, with certain scenes shot and put together seemingly to maximize confusion. In other places, the narrative becomes disjointed, with near-jump cuts from character to character threatening to befuddle the casual viewer. The direction also veers toward a jarring artiness, with a flashback dissolving into a coffee cup, the camera making Caligari angles out of an elevator shaft, and a few more apparent sub-Scorseseisms. All of this looked a little careless on the surface, but I suspect the artifice was carefully employed to maximize audience involvement with an edgy storyline that is, really, coming out of the mouth of one of its characters. The technique seems to have worked -- the Friday night crowd I saw it with was quite willingly strung along, with folks sitting forward in their seats to pay closer attention, gasping at all the right moments and chattering happily, minds boggled as they spilled out onto the city sidewalks for the walk home.
Like this spring's Shallow Grave, The Usual Suspects is a crowd-pleaser, but I'm similarly suspicious of the film's merits. Quentin Tarantino is a very clever filmmaker, but he's also a perfectionist auteur whose whacked-out persona shines loud and clear through his pictures, even the one (True Romance) he didn't direct. Clever by itself isn't enough, and it takes a little more raw energy to propel a film that's about an ensemble of characters who are doomed even before the first reel threads its way into the projector. And while Singer happily acknowledged the influence of Rashomon in pre-release interviews, somebody here seems not to have noticed that the only reason the trick worked for Kurosawa is that lives were changed by the way that those stories were told. The only thing that really changes over the course of The Usual Suspects is a policeman's ideas about who was responsible for a crime, and an audience's ideas about what the hell is going on.