[box cover]

The Usual Suspects: Special Edition

MGM Home Entertainment

Starring Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito, Suzy Amis, Dan Hedaya, Peter Greene, Paul Bartel

Written by Christopher McQuarrie
Directed by Bryan Singer

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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    

"My hope will be that, until the very last minute of the film, (the audience is) not quite sure what's going on. There's no bigger compliment that anyone will be able to pay to me — that they really got had, that they really didn't know until the very end. And I think that with the cast and crew they've put together — I know my work is done. They have the big thing to pull off now. It's just a big, well-structured magic trick, and I don't envy them the work they have to do. But if they pull it off, I think people are really gonna be shocked. I think they're gonna come away saying, 'Wow! I've really gotta see that again.'"

Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie,
speaking in 1994, a year before the film's release

"I always equated the movie to The Wizard of Oz. New York was Kansas and Los Angeles was Oz, with a cool cast of strange characters that they would encounter — you know, Red Foot by the Korean Friendship Bell, and this strange pool hall where they meet Kobayashi, and is he the man, or the man behind the curtain?... That's where a lot of that design, and perhaps some of the color and vibrance, came from."

Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer

"The Usual Suspects is a maze of lies, not clues."

— Actor Stephen Baldwin

The Usual Suspects Spoilerific Special Edition DVD FAQ

Warnings: 1. The following review — not unlike this particular DVD's supplements — assumes the reader has already seen The Usual Suspects and is aware of its critical twists and turns and last-minute revelations. 2. The following review, now that I re-read it, also spoils The Wizard of Oz and Citizen Kane for good measure. 3. If you're new to The Usual Suspects and buy/rent this DVD, I'd recommend you watch the movie before you sample any of the disc's featurettes or commentary tracks. Oh, and it's a masterful crime flick and well worth your hard-earned cash. Anyway:

What's the story?

FBI agents Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) and Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) are mopping up after a big, bloody mess — an apparent botched heist in which a cargo ship went up in flames. The only survivors are a logorrheic, crippled con named Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) and a badly burned Hungarian sailor.

Verbal (blessed with an immunity deal that one cop [Dan Hedaya] describes as being handed down from "The Prince of Darkness") soon finds himself grilled by Kujan about the events that led up to the boat heist. The remainder of the film is essentially one long, semi-convoluted flashback: a tale of five crooks (Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, and Spacey) who meet in a police lineup and decide to do a "job" together — only to have a mysterious Eastern Bloc gangster named "Keyser Söze" butt into (and, in some cases, end) their lives.

As Verbal spins his story, the question "Who is Keyser Söze?" comes to dominate the proceedings — a sort of blood-soaked variant on Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" mystery. Is it former corrupt cop Dean Keaton (Byrne)? Is it mysterious emissary Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite)?

Roger Ebert just like totally panned this movie back in 1995, didn't he?

Uh-huh. He, like a handful of other critics, found The Usual Suspects to be an ultimately hollow stylistic exercise — a story robbed of its power by its final moments. Ebert wrote:

"The story builds up to a blinding revelation, which shifts the nature of all that has gone before, and the surprise filled me not with delight but with the feeling that the writer, Christopher McQuarrie, and the director, Bryan Singer, would have been better off unraveling their carefully knit sleeve of fiction and just telling us a story about their characters — those that are real, in any event. I prefer to be amazed by motivation, not manipulation.... As Verbal talks, we see what he describes, and his story takes on an objective quality in our minds — we forget we're only getting his version."

But isn't panning the film on those grounds a bit like dismissing The Wizard of Oz as bankrupt storytelling because all that Yellow Brick Road crap ended up being Dorothy's fever dream? Or because Rosebud was just a damned sled?

Very possibly so. As J. Jordan Burke wrote in The DVD Journal's review of the original, no-frills DVD, The Usual Suspects is a passionate embrace of the fakery of the movies — "pure cinema. The Usual Suspects is only about itself, and how the whole language of cinema is exploited to tell its unusual story." For my money, McQuarrie and Singer are in love with the notion that the moviemaking process itself is an exquisite falsehood — so what's the harm in piling on a little more legerdemain?

And even if the film is ultimately a "magic trick" about nothing other than its own inventiveness, can we dismiss so easily the vivid characters ("real" or "fake") and the colorful tableaux McQuarrie et al create? What's great about Suspects is that every member of the filmmaking team comes to play, and every member of the filmmaking team seems to be playing a different game — and it all meshes together beautifully.

Singer bathes McQuarrie's zinger-filled script in a lurid color palate that wipes away the grit and turns it into something akin to a fable. Meanwhile, each of the five leads seems to have studied at a different acting school, possibly on different planets. Spacey (in a Best Supporting Actor turn) takes a calculated approach, calibrating his performance so every action has a double meaning; Byrne is a strict naturalist, playing the reluctant Keaton as a series of tics and glowers; Pollak draws on his stand-up comedy roots, smart-assing his way through the film; and Baldwin acts like he dropped by on his way to a Bruckheimer set, mixing violence and sexual menace with relish.

And of course there's Benicio Del Toro — whom Spacey describes in the disc's new extras as being "from Mars" — taking a somewhat bland character on the page (and one initially written with Harry Dean Stanton in mind) and speaking all his lines as helium-tongued gibberish. Plus the film is sweetened by a surprisingly lush musical score — one of the best of the 1990s — written by of all people the film's editor, John Ottman.

So is this brand-new "Special Edition" worth my time and money?

Oh, absolutely. Once again, MGM Home Entertainment has created a protein-rich platter — with brand-new standard and widescreen transfers of the film (plus two commentary tracks) on one side of the disc and a quite-decent set of special features on the other. The picture, of course, looks great, and the soundtrack's a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix.

So how about those extras?

On Side One, we find two commentary tracks. The first is the much-beloved commentary with director Bryan Singer and scenarist Christopher McQuarrie, which was at one point available as Tape Two of a special two-tape VHS "gift pack" (which this author still proudly owns, BTW, having used its enclosed Usual Suspects butane lighter for years to fire up her cigarillos).

This commentary has long been celebrated as one of the best ever recorded — owing largely to the fact that McQuarrie and Singer (friends since high school) are secure enough in their talents to make fun of themselves and their work. Here we learn that the filmmakers thought of a title and poster tag line ("All of you can go to hell") before they actually wrote a story; that everyone in the cast and crew (well, five people, anyway) seems to have played Keyser Söze in one shot or another; that McQuarrie was opposed to casting Del Toro as Fenster, and now admits he was wrong; that either Singer or McQuarrie (they start to sound alike after a while) "could have done without the whole flame/urination bit"; that Del Toro had decided he was playing a "Black Chinese Puerto Rican Jew"; that there are numerous editing errors in the film, including magical cigarettes and airliners that change type in mid-landing; that many characters are named after McQuarrie's friends and/or employers; that the actors were occasionally tense, unable to keep a straight face or, in the case of Peter Greene, "terrifying"; that McQuarrie was once a bodyguard for jewelers; that neither filmmaker knew until after the film was finished that the "greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist" line originally came from Baudelaire, and in fact they borrowed it from people who were quoting Baudelaire themselves; that they had a jolly time writing the cleaned-up ADR for airliners and television; that they never expected the "Oswald was a fag" line to make it to the final film; that the Coast Guard shut down the boat-heist shooting for a while; and that the misleading flashbacks that close the film were added quite late in the game.

Coming off the high of the McQuarrie/Singer track, I'm sorry to report that the brand-new commentary with editor and composer John Ottman is an ever-so-mild letdown. Ottman's a sharp cookie, make no mistake, and his obvious passion for film scoring makes for some rare insights — but he's also working alone, and he's just nowhere near as funny as his compatriots. I'm sorry, but facts are facts.

Ottman's highly technical commentary touches on, among other topics, the value of title sequences; his fears that Suspects would be lumped in with Pulp Fiction and its ilk; the benefits and hazards of using a "temp track" to score a film's rough cut; and the advantages (when you're both composer and editor) of being able to edit the film so the score can take precedence. A handful of complaints: Ottman sort of knocks Singer for shooting one scene in a single master shot; he tends to take credit a lot; and he uses the word "funnest" in a sentence. Otherwise, it's a genial, smart, well-rounded and valuable track, and I'm glad it's finally been recorded.

Moving on to Side Two of the platter, we find the rest of the extras and at least one Easter egg. First up is a "Featurettes" menu containing 1:21:12 worth of documentaries — playable in five parts or as one continuous stream (with the umbrella title "Round Up: Deposing The Usual Suspects"). The docs feature brand-new, surprisingly blunt and profane talking-head interviews with Singer, Ottman, Spacey, Byrne, Baldwin, Palminteri, Del Toro and Pollak:

  1. "Pursuing the Suspects" (24:56) talks about the travails of assembling the talented cast. Byrne — who was "hot" at the time and thus helped the filmmakers secure financing — was apparently reluctant to work for "personal reasons" (trouble with ex-wife Ellen Barkin, perhaps?). Palminteri, meanwhile, had a handful of days to shoot his scenes with Spacey, and Stephen Baldwin (who's simultaneously smarter and more arrogant than I imagined he'd be in the new interviews, and who provides many of the doc's best sound bites) kept pushing Singer's buttons, hoping Singer would stand up to him. There's also some jokey (?) recounting of "tension" between Pollak and Baldwin on the set;

  2. "Doin' Time with the Suspects" (26:45) riffs on the production itself — with the interviewees mostly praising Singer's insane bravado at age 27. There are also outtakes from the famously hard-to-film lineup scene; Del Toro, according to Pollak, was flatulent the whole time, and Spacey recalls Singer chewing the actors out in frustration for continually cracking up;

  3. "Keyser Söze — Lie or Legend?" (18:35) reveals all the actors who played Söze in various shots in the film — and features actors remembering how many different ways they seemed to pronounce the name. Highlights include learning that "Keyser Söze" essentially translates as "King Talk-Too-Much," plus a bemused Spacey remembering Byrne pigeonholing Singer and insisting that Dean Keaton had to be the arch-villain. (Byrne really gets razzed and mimicked by the other actors quite a bit in the featurettes, BTW);

  4. Also included is the much-fluffier 1995 "Original Featurette" (6:39) that promoted the film before it hit theaters, featuring younger-looking cast members in costume discussing the movie but revealing no secrets;

  5. And finally there's "Heisting Cannes with The Usual Suspects," which features home-video footage of the actors and principal crew "doing" Cannes, where they were apparently quite the cause célèbre. There's some footage of Pollak whining about having to tell the same stories over and over, plus a shot of Del Toro (who apparently did his promotional duties in high-water pants and sneakers) flipping off the camera.

The next menu features the 2:23 theatrical trailer with an introduction by John Ottman. During his 1:20 intro, Ottman riffs on the horror of the movie's original, farmed-out trailer, which was never used:

"They were trying to sell a film the audience wasn't going to get.... It had all this rock music in the background. They tried to make it seem like it was this hip, Pulp Fiction movie.... They edited together all the 'cool' dialogue in the movie.... I gave it my shot.... I was able to use my own score."

Sadly, the final trailer Ottman's introducing — while a damned sight better than the farmed-out aberration he describes — does utilize a variant on that tiresome "In a world...." voice-over narration device. The DVD's 2:22 "International Trailer," using character-name title cards and Spacey narration, is far cooler. There are also eight TV spots — five 30-second spots and three 15-second spots — that are strung into one continuous eight-chapter track.

Moving along, we find a menu containing five deleted scenes, all of them in fairly spotty shape and all "hosted" with John Ottman introductions:

  1. "The Restaurant Scene" (3:30, incl. intro) features a vastly more elaborate setup of the scene climaxing with Agent Kujan's arrest of Keaton as he's trying to negotiate a life-redeeming deal in a restaurant;

  2. "Finding Arturro's Body" (1:44, incl. intro) features a little boy, fishing off a bridge, witnessing a body bubbling up out of the bay. As Ottman says, this scene "almost tops the other scene for being cheesy," and feels as if it came from another movie entirely. Ottman also laughs as only successful people can at having snipped the scene's $5,000 corpse dummy from the film (it does, however, show up in a two-second flashback in the final cut);

  3. "McManus and the Hungarian" (1:27, incl. intro) is a sort of "mini-story" culled from second-unit footage, featuring a kitchen altercation between Baldwin's character and some sailor thugs;

  4. "Planting the Bomb" (1:04, incl. intro) explains why Keaton asks "What time is it?" when he's about to be killed by Söze — he'd just placed a bomb in the ship's hold;

  5. And "Extra Verbal" (1:54, incl. intro) is a slightly longer edit of Spacey's final moments with Palminteri as he exits the police office. As Ottman says, the extended scene's just a beat too long; the editor also laughingly recalls throwing wads of film at Singer, calling the tons of extra, raw Verbal footage "bullshit."

Rounding out the "official" extras is a wildly slapped-together and offensive 7:10 "Gag Reel with Intro" by Bryan Singer. I'll quote from Singer's own mildly embarrassed-sounding intro to the piece:

"In an effort to find material you haven't seen already to make the purchase of this disc worthwhile, uh, I dug up a thing we created just for the cast and crew to amuse them in case they hated the film after they saw it.... Some of it's a little vulgar, so I'm not going to show you all of it.... I don't know if it's worth the full price of the DVD, but it might be worth a couple cents."

As for the ensuing "gag reel": If this is the "de-vulgarized" version, I shudder to imagine what Singer didn't show us. Spliced from outtakes and other footage, the whole thing plays like one of those closed-door Friar's Roasts filled with tasteless cracks about "butt piracy." Gay jokes and expletives are strobed with Max-Headroom-like abandon, and, dear Lord, there's an original rap song about the movie's lead characters.

You said there were "Easter eggs"?

I found one — and because I think extras should be easy to access and not hidden under puzzles (as if the DVD format were some crap-tastic "Myst" variant), I'm going to tell you exactly how to access it:

Scroll up and select the logo on the main Special Features menu. You'll end up in a menu featuring a collage of items from the police-office bulletin board and surrounding environs. There are five highlight-able items; select one of them and it tells you there's a puzzle to solve: "Every picture tells a story – select them in order and see two additional featurettes." Whoo-hoo.

Select the pictures in the following order: "Quartet," "Guatemala," woman, and coffee mug. For all this needless effort, you now have two featurettes to choose from:

  1. "John Ottman Interview with Film Historian" is a wide-ranging 17:42 video interview, filmed in a static two-shot, in which Film Score Monthly Senior Editor Jeff Bond talks with Ottman about his music for The Usual Suspects, among other matters. Although Mr. Bond is a less-than-dynamic inquisitor and looks like he's about 12, he asks the right questions; there's a lot of meat in this interview — and it's an appalling crime that you have to solve that stupid puzzle every time you want to watch this featurette. Ottman reveals himself to be a recovering hard-core film-score nut: He tells us his temp track for Suspects included cuts from JFK, Outland and Basic Instinct — plus such relative obscurities as Ken Wannenberg's score for The Philadelphia Experiment. We also learn Ottman's thoughts on the lost art of film scoring, temp-tracking in general, his score for the all-but-unseen Incognito, how he got the combo scoring/editing gig by "blackmailing" Singer, the coolness of having one's music on CD, and how depressing it is that he no longer collects scores now that writing them is his career.

  2. Meanwhile, the decidedly less substantial 3:01 "Interview Outtakes" featurette features embarrassing cutting-room floor excerpts from the new talking-head interviews. Chazz Palminteri (who, BTW, looks 50 pounds lighter and 50 years older) chews out "these fuckin' sound guys"; Pollak crosses his eyes; someone tries to remember to say something nice about Pete Postlethwaite; and at least two of the actors want to know if they're getting a free DVD out of this.

Is that enough?

— Alexandra DuPont

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