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

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before