Dense with plot intricacies, thick with atmosphere, and packed with showy roles for a hip ensemble, The Usual Suspects is fun to watch — a celebration of cool actors having a good time playing sweaty and devious lowlifes. Working with longtime friend and filmmaking partner Christopher McQuarrie, director Bryan Singer (a Sundance Film Festival favorite since his first feature film, Public Access, cowritten with McQuarrie, was a hit there two years ago), posits a nifty variation on the classic crime-drama premise of an eyewitness who narrates the plot to a cop in flashback. Here it’s Kevin Spacey, playing an ingratiating crippled con man called Verbal (as in talkative) who spells things out for interrogator Chazz Palminteri. Verbal is the survivor of a boat explosion in which a lot of people died, and the saga he concocts is of five felons, brought in for a lineup on a shaky suspicion of involvement in a hijacking, who meet in a holding cell and decide to do some tricky business together. Their common bond is that all of them are terrified of Keyser Söze, a vicious criminal who makes other bad guys break out in cold sweats. What really happened — the shifting truth, the puzzle pieces fitting and refitting — is up to you to figure out in that after-the-credits-roll way that worked so satisfyingly with a sled called Rosebud in Citizen Kane. And when you do, you may feel a nice happy frisson of pleasure.
Then again, you may feel more of a sour, underwhelmed thunk of dismay at the contortions of suspended disbelief required to accept Suspects‘ fun-house conclusion. Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak, Benicio Del Toro, and Spacey have a grand old time playing bad guys — they act with their neck tendons, their eyebrows, and their beard stubble in a festival of tough chatter and physical exertions. Byrne, in particular, holds the screen with the intensity of his glowers, and Spacey is always my favorite portrayer of psychopaths. (Pete Postlethwaite from In the Name of the Father has less fun playing an ill-defined emissary of the fearsome Soze). But The Usual Suspects is so pumped up on its own diesel fuel that it allows for no air, no recuperative downtime, no respite from Tarantinoville. Reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and its caffeinated, neo-macho brethren, Singer can’t seem to slow down and get blood simple. Instead, his pace is bloody twitchy. B