MGM // 1995 // 106 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // September 11th, 2000
The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.
Winner of two 1995 Academy Awards, Bryan Singer's (Apt Pupil, X-Men), The Usual Suspects makes its second DVD appearance. For this release MGM once more refuses to go the extra mile, choosing instead to recycle Polygram's original non-anamorphic presentation. What should have been a truly special edition is instead barely acceptable. Pity.
This really is one of those movies that if you have never seen, the less said, the better. If you have seen it, then you know all the surprises that The Usual Suspects holds within in it.
In a nutshell, the usual suspects are five hardened career criminals. Brought together under unusual circumstances there is ex-cop Dean Keaton played by Gabriel Byrne (End Of Days, Miller's Crossing); the hot headed Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin -- One Tough Cop, Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas); his almost impossible to understand partner, Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro -- The Way Of The Gun, Fear And Loathing In Las Vagas); another hot head, Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollack -- Grumpy Old Men, A Few Good Men); and the crippled Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey -- American Beauty, The Ref).
From the beginning, these men are manipulated by forces unseen and best unspoken. Told in flashback, the movie zips back and forth through time and place, telling the story of these five men, a couple of cops, and one master criminal whose name is mentioned only in hushed tones: Keyser Soze.
The Usual Suspects announced the arrival of director Bryan Singer and his great skill behind the camera. With this, his second film, Singer made himself a force to be reckoned with. Part crime movie, part anti-buddy movie, and part thriller, The Usual Suspects is never less than entertaining and often is much more. Singer has great style and placement with his camera, always giving maximum effect to the action but all the while allowing his actors the freedom to work their craft. Singer is a major talent and his success with this summer's X-Men certainly bodes well for his directing future.
One of the most important things Singer does with The Usual Suspects is play by the rules of the mystery/thriller genre. Many directors would be content to string the audience along, letting the film's eventual ending come out of left field. Not Singer. The movie's ending, while surprising, at least to me, is clearly laid out during the course of the movie for all those paying attention.
As a film narrative, Suspects manages to be tough yet also elegant in structure. Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie (The Way Of The Gun) seem to delight in keeping the audience confused and off balance until the final moments when Suspects pulls off its coup de cinema, leaving the viewer to question, one last time, everything that has come before. The movie is physical, gritty and rough but it also possesses a nimble quality that never collapses under the weight of what the filmmakers are attempting to pull off.
For his part, McQuarrie has written vibrant characters that are complete and well rounded. Dialogue rings true, with each and every character possessing their own individual voice. McQuarrie also is a master of building complication upon coincidence, with healthy doses of the absurd thrown in for good measure. It was McQuarrie's richly detailed work here that won him the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Both Singer and McQuarrie are helped in their efforts by the evocative cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men, Three Kings) and the double duty pulled by Film Editor/Composer John Ottman.
As for the performances, well what can you say about a movie where Stephen Baldwin is actually pretty good? Is the world coming to an end? While I don't know the answer to that, Baldwin does do his job and manages to keep up with the other acting heavy weights in the cast. Gabriel Byrne turns in his usual high standard of work and indeed it is his performance that truly holds the film together. He manages to be both open and friendly while also maintaining an air of mystery and malice. It is these kind of contradictions that swirl around The Usual Suspects, making it a film that never lets the viewer know where it is headed or indeed where it has been. Kevin Pollack provides good humor as well as an angry edge to the movie, with Benicio Del Toro adding inspired work to the proceedings. Del Toro actually gives my favorite performance in the movie. He moves with such grace and rhythm that it makes him impossible not to watch. Also in support are the always-volcanic Chaz Palminteri (Analyze This, A Bronx Tale), veteran character actor Dan Hedaya (Dick, Shaft) and the late, great actor/director Paul Bartel (Hamlet, Eating Raoul). Pete Postlewaite (Brassed Off, The Lost World) is icy and stone-faced as the attorney Kobayashi but the real star of the show is Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint. This was the performance that won Spacey his first Oscar, and the movie is told from his point of view, or at least the flashbacks are. Again, I am unwilling to give away too much of the movie. Let's just say Spacey richly deserved his award, giving a career making performance in the process.
On the disc end of things MGM rehashes the Polygram version almost down to the letter. The movie is presented in both non-anamorphic widescreen, which maintains the movie's original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, as well a full screen presentation on the flip side. Widescreen is the way to go, and to be fair it's not a bad transfer. Blacks are solid and show minimal shimmer. Detail is certainly acceptable, although there would be more clarity if the picture were given the anamorphic treatment. Flesh tones appear to be natural and lifelike with colors being vibrant and full. The image boasts good contrast and warmth, although there are moments when the picture appeared to be more than a little over enhanced. The print used is of good quality with there being few defects visible. My overall impression of the picture was that a couple of years ago when this disc was first released, the picture was more than acceptable. Since then however, the technology has improved greatly. If MGM truly gave a damn about its customers they would take the time to do things over again and to do right by this Oscar winner.
Same story on the sound. Dolby 2.0 Surround is the order of the day and while it's an active and clear mix it does leave a bit to be desired. Background distortion is held to a minimum, with the soundtrack being clear and having a pleasant sheen to it. Dialogue, sound effects and music are all well combined but I still was left wanting more. Would it have really broken MGM's budget to go ahead and mix a new 5.1 soundtrack? I suppose I'm spoiled. In the past few days I've had the pleasure of watching, not to mention, listening to, discs such as T2, Men In Black and Evil Dead II but then I remembered, Artisan, Columbia and Anchor Bay released those discs. Lord knows I should not expect the same level of commitment from MGM towards its customers. Still, it would be nice. Wouldn't it?
The one bright spot of the rehash is the inclusion of the scene specific commentary by Singer and McQuarrie. It is one of the best examples of the form I have heard of lately. The track manages to be both informative as well as entertaining. The two of them offer interesting comment after interesting comment. The most fascinating tidbit for me was the Hungarian translation for the name Soze; know that and the entire movie is made clear. As such it is yet another case of the movie playing with all its cards on the table. Singer and McQuarrie are obviously comfortable with each other and that feeling comes through in the commentary. Together the two of them come off sounding like just a couple of guys who love what they do.
As a side note, it would appear that The Usual Suspects came out a little better than MGM's recent release of Platoon. Platoon may have picked up a new anamorphic transfer, a pretty weak one I might mention, but it lost both of its commentary tracks. I just love the way MGM treats important movies that are multi Oscar winners.
Closing out the so-called special features is the inclusion of the movie's theatrical trailer and MGM's signature "collectible" booklet. Wow. I really should start saving those things...never know when I might have to put some kids through school.
One of the best films of the previous decade, The Usual Suspects is a movie just asking for special edition treatment. Unfortunately for the movie, when the rights left Polygram they reverted to MGM. Polygram had put out a decent, if now dated, transfer with a really good commentary track. It appears as though MGM thought that was enough.
Was there any thought to giving the movie a brand new anamorphic transfer? Did MGM consider that a winner of two Oscars might deserve a new 5.1 remix? Was there any thought that the talked about hour of outtakes and deleted footage should be included for fans of the movie to enjoy and talk about? Wouldn't it have been nice if MGM had lavished half the effort they put into the Bond films and given The Usual Suspects a retrospective documentary?
Hello, my name is Harold Gervais, I write reviews for the DVD Verdict and I admit it, for even thinking about asking those questions of MGM, I must have been smoking crack.
Still, once more what we are left with is a frustrating experience. A great movie that is given lackluster treatment. I'll be honest, if I had not found this disc at a used record store for $11.99, I would not have purchased it. It is pretty much the only way I will buy MGM DVDs that I want. I can count on two hands all the MGM discs I have bought on a retail basis in the past few months, and I can also tell you the only reason I put down my cash is because the discs were anamorphic. Anything else is unacceptable and an open insult to the DVD buying community. I would rather pick up a DVD of something that I am less thrilled with because it has state-of-the-art picture, sound and extras rather than a movie that I know I love because it is another sub-par job from MGM. I demand better and so should you. The only thing these corporate types understand is money, so hit them where it hurts. If it's not anamorphic, no matter how much you love the movie, pass it by. While you are at it, tell anyone who will listen why you refuse to buy it. Tell your retailer, write a letter to your online DVD house of choice. Let MGM know second-rate treatment of movies is just not going to cut it anymore. The only way things will change is if that product sits on the shelves. Okay, rant over.
This is a very tough call for me. I really enjoy The Usual Suspects. The picture and sound are decent enough, with the disc having an entertaining commentary track BUT it is a complete rehash of the previous Polygram release. As such I cannot recommend the DVD as a purchase. If MGM refuses to put even the slightest amount of work into a release why should I be expected to spend my hard earned cash for it?
If you love this movie, do yourself a favor. Resist temptation and rent away. If, on the other hand, you happen to see The Usual Suspects used at a good price, well then pick it up. Trust me, in the long run, you will be glad you did.
Strictly as a movie, The Usual Suspects is acquitted of all charges. As a disc, well lets just say if The Verdict had a death penalty, I would be ordering MGM Home Video executives in front of the firing squad right now. That is all this hanging judge has at the moment. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2000 Harold Gervais; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scene Specific Audio Commentary by Director Bryan Singer and Writer Christopher McQuarrie
* Original Theatrical Trailer
* The Famous MGM Collectible Booklet