B y Z a c h a r y W o o d r u f f
FROM WHAT LITTLE I know of magic, there are two elements crucial to an effective trick. The first, which results from cleverness, is the trick itself--a sneaky hand movement that allows the hiding of a coin, for example. The second is the diverting gesture of the other hand, and it's easily the most important element of the two. Where the trick itself is often just a variation on a standard set of moves, the magician's personality--his ability to lead your attention where he wants it--can make or break the act. Any magician can confuse; it takes a real pro to amuse.
The Usual Suspects, an independent film from director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, can be viewed as the cinematic equivalent of a magic trick. I can't tell you too much about the trick itself, but suffice to say the filmmakers have one hand waving around a load of information while their other hand does its sneaky stuff. There aren't many movies that attempt such a difficult feat, and Singer and McQuarrie deserve kudos for their effort. But their magic's diverting hand has some limitations.
The story, which has been compared to Reservoir Dogs, concerns a group of career criminals who decide to work together after they are thrown in a tedious police lineup. In traditional caper-movie form, each man has a distinct personality, which we glean via a series of flashbacks. There's the veteran who's trying to go clean (Gabriel Byrne); the impulsive, eagle-eyed gunman (Stephen Baldwin); the bilious, self-serving technician (Kevin Pollak); the sardonic, heavily accented cohort (Benicio Del Toro); and the nebbish, weasely cripple (Kevin Spacey). In each case, the movie's casting can't be beat.
The Usual Suspects delivers the usual action scenes, including a complicated New York robbery in which these new colleagues swiftly make off with a few million dollars in gems. But the movie swerves onto a different road when an elegant Pakistani man (Pete Postlethwaite) walks into their secret quarters with a briefcase full of incriminating details about each of them. This is where we learn of a mob legend named Keyser Soze, a seemingly omnipotent criminal mastermind who is so enigmatic nobody even knows what he looks like.
Soze blackmails the men to perform some dirty work on a pier in California, and this is where I'll stop giving away the plot--it's too convoluted to describe. Essentially, after being led through a series of oddball situations, power plays, motives and hints, you come to realize The Usual Suspects is three parts mystery and only one part crime drama. That mystery, with its magic-trick sense of whimsy, left many in the audience pleasantly surprised at the end.
But not me. Maybe I've read too many Agatha Christie books, but I figured this one out a little too early in the game for my taste. For me, the problem was that the trick's diverting hand--all of things that make you care about the whys of its mystery, and not just the solution--wasn't quite enough. The characters, despite their spicy personalities and pungent banter, remain sketchy and distant throughout. We don't get much of the meat and potatoes of good caper movies--we rarely see these men use their special talents in a pinch. And if some of them might happen to die...who cares?
You might want to see The Usual Suspects anyway, because even a flawed mystery can be a lot of fun to mull over. Just don't expect it to provoke any sensation below the cranium. Where Reservoir Dogs and other crime dramas put you inside their characters' guts, The Usual Suspects makes it all too clear that you're out in the audience, viewing the story through smoke and mirrors.
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