The most unusual 'Suspects' Nothing is usual in this twisting, original whodunit

September 01, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Round up the usual adjectives.

Try "bold." Go for "terrific." Let a "dazzling" fly. Unleash a "stunning." Send forth a "mesmerizing."

That's "The Usual Suspects," which many are calling this year's "Pulp Fiction" -- untrue, by the way -- but which is really just one of this year's best movies.

The dense, ironic and thoroughly engrossing caper melodrama opens today. It's not really a film noir or a film noir knock-off, as many are calling it, and it assiduously avoids the kind of arch hipness that somewhat dilutes the impact of the Tarantino work. It's not trying to show you how many movies the director has seen; it's trying to show you a good time.

As a genre item, it could be said to trace its lineage back even further than the noirs of the late '40s to the Black Cat mysteries of the '20s and '30s, with their nefarious master criminals like Fu Manchu. The mysterious bad guy here is one Keyser Soze, legendary Hungarian puppet master, who moves through the American underworld like a phantasm, playing the sides against each other in stratagems so subtle it would take a mainframe to decipher them, and leaving a trail as gossamer and variously interpretable as stardust.

Is there a Keyser Soze? A customs agent played by Chazz Palminteri doesn't think so. But he's got a blazing shipful of corpses (27), missing drug money ($91 million) and one conscious survivor, a glib but obviously weak-minded petty con man named Verbal (spacey Kevin Spacey), who narrates the complex events that led up to the inferno, though from an apparently naive point of view.

Thus the film is a "Canterbury Tales" of pulp fiction, a densely packed, quadruple-caper tapestry of events recalled from memory which in themselves are quite clear but which seem not to be related vertically -- along cause-effect lines -- but rather horizontally -- as layers and layers of enameled complexity.

It all began some weeks previously when purely "by chance" (is the hand of Keyser Soze in here somewhere?) five world-class crooks were arrested on suspicion of a common truck heist in New York, then left to fester in a holding tank off the lineup room. They included a suave ex-cop (Gabriel Byrne), a tough punk (Stephen Baldwin), a tough-talking punk (Kevin Pollak) and a strange Hispanic guy named . . . Fenster (Fenster!) (Benicio del Toro). And Verbal.

Left to their own devices and bitter grievances, they come up with a retaliatory caper and rip off a police protection racket. Let me point out that the director, Bryan Singer, has all kinds of fresh and witty ways of imagining the most banal of situations. The heist, the hostage-taker shooting, the robbery, the hit, the gunfight: All are vividly re-invented.

Meanwhile, the plot is melting down into an alloy so dense no human intelligence can decipher it. Things become insanely complex when Peter Postelthwaite shows up, representing "Mr. Soze," with unbearable sangfroid and savior faire. Back in reality -- a crummy lieutenant's office in San Pedro -- poor Palminteri is trying to stay up with Verbal's re-creation of these events as it slides and dips back and forth in time.

It may ultimately make sense; no one could tell without at least four or five viewings. What is totally commanding, however, is the level of ensemble acting, the adroitness of the storytelling and the nifty way the mysterious Soze comes to dominate the proceedings even if we never see him. Or do we?

What we do see is great acting. Spacey has been a riveting

presence at the edge of many films; here as our principal narrator he's slimy and apparently not quite as stupid as he seems. Baldwin is excellent as a tough little weasel who isn't afraid to shoot first and ask questions later; newcomer del Toro registers strongly. The revelation, however, is Pollak, whose career has always taken him into better neighborhoods than this one. But as a little fast-talking rat of a crook, he's extremely memorable, and his sharp, feral features make him seem totally convincing.

The only weak link, in my view, is the conventionally handsome Gabriel Byrne, who never quite radiates the reptile charisma the movie assigns to him. Was Christopher Walken busy making "The Prophecy"? What about Dennis Hopper, was he still on "Waterworld"? Alan Rickman, of the first "Die Hard"?

No matter. The bottom line is that "The Usual Suspects" is cruelly entertaining. And Keyser Soze didn't make me say that. At least, I don't think he did.

"The Usual Suspects"

Starring Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey and Kevin Pollack.

Directed by Bryan Singer.

Released by Gramercy.

Rated R

*** 1/2

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