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