A significant incentive to return to a fine book or film is what has been forgotten, what has been distorted by time's ruthless grip. Over the years the work will surface and resurface on memory's golden pond and we learn that what we once thought of it has more or less disappeared. Perhaps the work was enjoyed when we still too young to distinguish first-rate art from its shadowy imitators; perhaps that part of our life has simply been closed and we have moved on to another concept of reality. Yet some works will always beckon. Some displays of genius will always linger and aid in our definition of art itself. We cannot pretend that a large number of the books and films in this world deserve such scrutiny; in fact, worthy are but a small percentage; rarer still are those that can be enjoyed again and again until our days darken. We also cannot claim that this film ranks among the most eternal because, after all, Hollywood has had its hand in it, and that means compromises. But even with a few minor flaws, and even knowing the path of its crooked turns, it is still undeniably entertaining.
We begin "last night" in San Pedro, California, aboard a doomed vessel aflame in an otherwise peaceful harbor. Aboard this boat – ostensibly a cargo ship, although from the look of things, its cargo could be corpses – lies a severely injured man (Gabriel Byrne) cradling a cigarette which will be his last. Above him, obscured by shadows and a regrettably coy camera angle, stands another man who calls him "Keaton," and whom he addresses, with some bitter irony, as "Kaiser." The separation is notable since another character will persist in the belief that the same mortal form inhabits both identities. The Kaiser shall light one more cigarette before finishing his dirty work on board (time for his chat with Keaton was bought by urinating on a lighted wick), left for the LAPD to mop up the next day. That morning five known felons are, in the words of one of the criminals, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), "brought in on a trumped-up charge to be leaned on by half-wits." Our title does not promise highly developed characters; and, indeed, apart from Kint, who will also serve as our narrator, we have some standard underworld cutouts: McManus (Stephen Baldwin), the high-strung psycho killer; Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’s mellow, often incomprehensible sidekick; Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the sardonic chorus; Kint, a victim of cerebral palsy and the one we should pity – a perfect choice for a narrator; and Keaton, the Irish-accented 'dean' of criminals, and a disgraced former cop who may or may not have gone straight. The film's episodic first half details the events of the weeks following the police lineup, peppered all the while with some delightfully brash noir dialogue (the best being McManus's version of the lineup reading and Hockney's response to "I can put you in Queens on the night of the robbery"). The atmosphere, while murderous at times, is imbued with a certain light-heartedness; even when McManus skeptically recurs to Keaton's new 'clean' life with a big shot lawyer as his girlfriend (Suzy Amis), we all chuckle along, albeit not as unhingedly as McManus. But the oddity persists: rare is it, as Keaton points out, that five convicted felons occupy the same lineup (the second vignette is indeed entitled "Rounding up ..." since The Usual Suspects was named after this famous film). Odder still is that the cops seem to have nothing on these guys whatsoever. Which brings us back to that boat.
The federal agent investigating the vessel's demise is Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) – not to be confused with this fictional character – a friend and colleague of customs special agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Kujan and Baer will eventually convene and share notes. But for the time being, for that fateful morning, their stories will run on parallel tracks. Kujan will lock himself in a police station office to interrogate Kint; Baer will track down the only other known survivor of the incident, a hospitalized Hungarian sailor with burns over sixty percent of his body who boldly claims to have seen "the Devil." And who is this Devil? You may remember Keaton's odd appellation for a German emperor in our first reel: the person the sailor purports to have seen is Keyser Söze, and his origin may never really be resolved, which could easily have diminished the film's value. A hazy flashback shows Söze, an absolutely ruthless Turkish gangster, handling some Hungarian competitors in a manner that shocks even them (and explains, it is implied, the role of the Hungarian crew aboard the burning ship). Over time Söze has become the bogeyman to outlaws everywhere ("A spook story criminals tell their kids at night") with a network so volatile and multifaceted that the United States Government, among other entities, would give practically anything to find someone who could identify him. The sailor, a man not long for this world, complies with Baer's wishes and begins to describe the Devil to a police artist, who, of course, will take her sweet time in composing her subject. My strict non-disclosure policy prevents me from revealing what part of the drawing we get to see. Yet if we adhere to the characters and their appearances during the film, one detail is impossible – and we should leave matters right there.
Much noise has surrounded the dénouement of The Usual Suspects, perhaps justifiably so, although the final scene is more shocking in its celerity than its content. What is noticeable, however, is that throughout the film certain characters say and do things that they shouldn't, either because they cannot possibly know what they claim or because their reactions betray inappropriate emotions. Upon a reviewing, these moments seem so painfully obvious that we wonder why we didn't come to the same conclusions initially. Is the plot very complicated? Not really; it is certainly tortuous, but such plots lend credence to the suspicion that a criminal mind is built differently than that of a law-abiding citizen and, with the rare exception, every criminal existence will ultimately be captioned in that famous Hobbesian pentaptych ending in 'short.' We should also note, pace certain reviews, that Kint and Kujan spend the film not in Kujan's office, but the messy sty of one of Kujan's colleagues (an extremely important point, although not ours to say why). But the core of The Usual Suspects is the fact that Kujan wants to hear one story and Kint spins him another. Kint has a few scenes in which Keaton appears and defends his girlfriend’s honor, yet Kujan only wants to hear about Keaton, "the cold-blooded bastard" he's been "investigating for three years"; the Keaton who "was indicted seven times when he was on the force" (including on three counts of murder); the Keaton all of whose state witnesses "either reversed their testimony or died"; the Keaton who himself allegedly "died in a warehouse fire two years ago." Unfortunately, Byrne is for whatever reason one of the world's least convincing criminals, perhaps because he always seems above daily chit-chat (he works well as a Biblical Satan, or Lord Byron, or a wicked nobleman, but as a common criminal and NYC cop – no way in hell or heaven). So when his girlfriend is threatened, or when he is seen enjoying her company, he is convincing. But he is no hoodlum. Is that the intent? One cannot imagine it is, and if you've seen Byrne and his amazingly limited range you know 'brooding lover' is really the only tune in his jukebox. And we didn't even mention the man known as Kobayashi.