Losing the plot by the yard

THE USUAL SUSPECTS Bryan Singer (18) The Usual Suspects is a stylish thriller with an opening that evokes classic Hitchcock. But, says Adam Mars-Jones, the story soon snags on its own intricacies

There are films (many films) that don't live up to their budgets; there are films (many films) that don't live up to their press campaigns; but it is a rare film that doesn't quite live up to its title sequence, as happens with Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects. This is more of a back- handed compliment than an outright complaint, since the title sequence is exemplary, fit to set aside the sequences that Saul Bass designed for Hitchcock in the 1950s. And, for at least its first hour, the film delivers something almost as dark and shiny as was promised by those opening seconds.

The image is simple: a wavering patch of light, roughly vertical, perhaps the moon reflected on water. It moves from right to left, with the slowness that is either serene or ominous, and is followed by another, and another. A little later they start to appear in pairs, or little groups, and to show slight differences, as if these were print-outs of normal variation in healthy heartbeats. The later moon-trails are a little more broken up than the ones we saw earlier. That's all, but it's enough to give an audience a test drive of the director's sensibility, and to win a sense of confidence for him. This is only Singer's second film (his first, Public Access, won a prize in 1993), and he knows what he is doing. So does John Ottman, who in the unusual dual role of editor and composer, must take some of the credit for the credits sequence.

The title of the film comes from Casablanca, where the phrase "round up the usual suspects" exemplified 1940s worldliness at its most casually cynical. But cynicism is now so routine that even the most compulsively self-sacrificing heroes (Batman, Bruce Willis in the various Die Hards) have to put up a smokescreen of gloom or cheesy wise-cracking to mask their little weakness of saving women, children and the world generally. Authentic cynicism needs to raise the stakes. The cynicism of The Usual Suspect is closer to Reservoir Dogs than to Casablanca, but it has the odd flash of wit and freshness. In one sequence, a criminal arranges to get a ride from New York's Finest Taxi Service - a ring of corrupt cops who hire out their police cars, complete with drivers, to whoever can afford them.

Christopher McQuarrie's screenplay owes a certain amount to Reservoir Dogs, with its structure of intricate flashbacks and its theme of honour among thieves. The gang in Dogs were strangers recruited for a particular job. Here they are strangers who team up as an act of revenge after being hauled in for a humiliating police line-up - humiliating because a line- up is supposed to contain one suspect and a handful of decoys. Since when are they decoys? It's an insult, is what it is.

McQuarrie's script doles out plot by the yard, character by the inch - which doesn't matter too much if the inches are well judged. Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) was in the middle of making a pitch for backing in a legitimate venture, actually at table in a restaurant with some potential investors, when he was hauled in for the line-up. So much for going straight - if there is one thing that scares backers off it's a lunchtime arrest. Then there's an Hispanic dandy (Benicio Del Toro), a handsome sharpshooter (Stephen Baldwin), a fiesty shortarse (Kevin Pollak) and a con man with a gammy leg (Kevin Spacey).

Of the entire group, only Keaton has a private life, a romance with a lawyer (Suzy Amis) that he forfeits almost immediately. With the honourable exception of The Last Seduction, recent films noirs tend to shy away from the misogyny (or gynophobia) of the classics of the genre. The camera gazes at Amis obsessively from afar, not through any particular love-hatred, but because she still has services to render to the plot.

If the modern film noir doesn't quite know how to locate women in its world, it's more confident with the latent homosexuality that was also a theme in the older films. What The Usual Suspect does is make the homosexuality not patent, but patently latent - much more obvious, even explicit, but still somehow not the real thing. So the members of the gang are jeered at as "ladies" by some rivals at one point, and a little later the handsome sharpshooter and the fiesty short- arse have a confrontation in which they dare each other to kiss - until they both crack up laughing, the naturalness of their amusement offering proof that this was not what it looked like. Later still, the sharp shooter, preparing his gun to pick off half a dozen targets, mutters: "Oswald was a fag," which further restores, perhaps, normality.

Singer's direction is smoothly dynamic, avoiding both the mannerisms of a Tarantino and the everything-stops-for-a-setpiece cliches of less distinctive action directors. Unusually, it is the British actors - Gabriel Byrne and Pete Postlethwaite - who seem a bit lost, whereas the American members of the cast, particularly Kevin Spacey as "Verbal" Kint, the garrulous con man, are in their element.

But then British actors have the bad habit of reading the script to the end, and expecting to understand it.

After about an hour of screen time, Christopher McQuarrie's script enters territory of such ludicrous complexity as to jeopardise everything that has gone before. From the moment we hear about the Turkish-Hungarian arch- fiend Keyser Soze, things begin to slide, and the plot comes to resemble one of those puzzles where you have to work out from a diagram of a tangle of string whether pulling on the ends will yield a knot. Some recent films, such as Malice, have come with a plea to reviewers not to reveal the twists. The Usual Suspects doesn't bother, but only because it doesn't need to. There isn't a film critic alive who could summarise them satisfactorily.

n On release from Friday

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments