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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/5/02

The Usual Suspects

reviews by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

The Usual Suspects: Special Edition (MGM)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Usual Suspects
Special Edition - 1995 (2002) - PolyGram (MGM)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A

Specs and Features

106 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), keep case packaging with custom slipcase, audio commentary track (with director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie), audio commentary track (with editor/composer John Ottman), Pursuing the Suspects featurette, Doin' Time with the Suspects featurette, Keyser Sozë: Lie or Legend? featurette, original promotional featurette, Heisting Cannes with the Usual Suspects featurette, interview with editor/composer John Ottman, interview outtakes, 5 deleted scenes (with video intro by John Ottman), gag reel (with video intro by director Bryan Singer), theatrical trailer (with video intro by John Ottman), international trailer, 8 TV spots, Easter eggs, animated film-themed menu screens with sound effects and music, scene selection (32 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

The Usual Suspects (original MGM)

The Usual Suspects
1995 (1999) - PolyGram (MGM)

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D+/B-/C+

Specs and Features

106 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1) and full frame (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, keep case packaging, audio commentary track (with director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie), cast and filmmaker bios, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene selection (19 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish, Closed Captioned

The Usual Suspects (PolyGram)

The Usual Suspects
1995 (1997) - PolyGram

Film Rating: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): D+/B-/C+

Specs and Features

106 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1) and full screen (1.33:1), dual-sided, single-layered, deluxe jewel case packaging, audio commentary track (with director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie), cast and filmmaker bios, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene selection (19 chapters), languages: English and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish, Closed Captioned

"The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

Has anyone out there in Internet land not seen this film? Raise your hands. Okay, the few of you with your paws in the air, go stand in the corner for an hour. No, better yet drop whatever you're doing and run - don't walk - to your friendly DVD retailer and purchase a copy of the new special edition DVD from MGM. Do this not just because it's a killer SE, and not because the audio and video presentations have been noticeably improved over the previous two lackluster DVD editions. Get this disc now because The Usual Suspects is one of the best films of the 1990s. A strong statement? For sure, but it's my review, so there.

Okay, okay… I'll play nice. The Usual Suspects is one of those few films for which the less said, the better. Loosely, five career criminals are brought together in a police line-up, one of them suspected of jacking a truck full of guns. While the five men are held, they decide to pool their talents to knock over a corrupt police "taxi service" for some quick loot. Through an acquaintance of an acquaintance, they reluctantly accept a job from the legendary, evil criminal mastermind Keyser Sozë. Sozë is something of a spook story in the criminal underworld. No one's ever seen him, and as far as anyone knows, he's a myth. But everyone's terrified to the point of silence whenever his name is uttered. The job entails foiling a large-scale cocaine transaction in the port of L.A. that would hurt Sozë's narcotics operations if allowed to proceed. The group will have $91 million in cash to distribute amongst themselves if they successfully stop the transaction, and if they manage the thorny task of getting out alive.

In a nutshell, that's the main structure of the story. The film is told via a series of flashbacks the morning after the harbor incident. The film's narrator is one of the suspects, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). He explains to U.S. Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) what happened in the weeks and days leading up to the events at the harbor. As Kint unravels the story from his point of view, the brash Kujan acts as the catalyst in prodding the crook to reveal key relationships and events that the authorities need to understand in order to sort out the mess. But solving this mystery will prove much more violent and mind twisting than anyone could ever begin to realize.

The Usual Suspects is a very intricate film, containing a story that slithers around its characters, constantly boiling until it reaches a finale that grabs you by the collar and punches you squarely in the face. The Academy Award winning script is right up there with the best of them - brimming with powerful, intelligent dialog and some occasional dark humor. The film's plot structure will keep even the savviest filmgoer on the edge of his wits, as the conventions we have learned as a film going audience are shattered right before our very eyes. I've seen this film eight or nine times, and no matter how many times I see it, the ending always leaves me breathless.

In my eyes, almost every aspect of the film's production contributed to its overall success. Bryan Singer was only in his late 20s when he directed The Usual Suspects, and his passion, energy and take-no-shit attitude hearken back to 1971, when a 31-year-old, headstrong director named William Friedkin broke Hollywood conventions and blew audiences away with The French Connection. The Usual Suspects was financed in such a way that Singer retained final cut - thank God, because there were many occasions in the film where the typical Hollywood filmmaking-by-committee would have deep-sixed the entire effort. Helping Singer break convention was a stellar cast willing to take chances. No one was really a top marquee actor (although it did net Spacey Oscar gold and kick start his career), so everyone seemed much more daring without the egocentric public opinion concerns a Tom Cruise or Val Kilmer would bring to the set. Editor John Ottman explains in the supplemental sections of the new DVD the many challenges he had with cutting the film so the very complicated story flowed as well as it did. If you don't have much appreciation for what a film editor does, you will after viewing The Usual Suspects two or three times. Ottman scored the film as well, and his noir-ish themes are a tip of the hat to the suspenseful film scores of the great Bernard Herrmann. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (whose credits include cinematographic work on Three Kings, Casino and Wall Street), deftly captured the film's many nuances, and contrasted its dark nature with some stunning vistas that are painted beautifully in the 2.35:1 frame.

Now in its third DVD incarnation, The Usual Suspects has finally received the treatment that it and its legion of fans deserve. But let's start with the first two releases. The first disc was one of PolyGram's initial DVD titles back in the summer of 1997 (note that the 1999 MGM version is basically the same thing; MGM acquired PolyGram's home video library and simply reissued the existing discs with MGM packaging). Interestingly, those who have been with DVD long enough will remember the atrocious deluxe jewel case that PolyGram was using way back in the day; my older copy of Suspects is cursed with it. Pitted against the average laserdisc, this transfer looks amazing. But for a DVD five years into the format's life, it looks awful. While the 2.35:1 non-anamorphic transfer exhibits a nice level of detail given its technical limitations, the source print (especially during the beginning suspect round-up of Hockney and Fenster) has some very nasty blemishes. As per usual with many NTSC laserdisc masters ported to DVD, dark scenes (of which there are quite a few in this film) tend to be muddy and lack resolution. The Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks on the original discs were pretty good. Nicely spacious, with decent surround usage, these ranked up there with some of the better non-5.1 tracks on DVD.

As far as extra features for the two older discs, both shared a commentary by director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie. Due to the fact that the track was a holdover from the laserdisc, the filmmakers obviously don't discuss things like the cult following the film has earned over the years, the subsequent breakout of some of its stars (such as Spacey and Benicio Del Toro), and other such topics. But it remains an entertaining discussion about how the film was conceived and created. It can get quite funny at times as Singer and McQuarrie point out the numerous little continuity errors in the film. The older editions also contained the theatrical trailer, and cast and crew bios.

Let's move on. You fanatics out there, have been screaming for it for years now, and MGM has finally heard your cries. A brand new The Usual Suspects: Special Edition is here, and it's worth every single cent of its reasonable price tag. The first thing you'll notice is the very chic packaging. The keep case is nestled within a translucent slipcase whose artwork intermingles with the main keep case design (similar to Columbia's Gandhi DVD). The brand new 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen video is a definite improvement over the previous non-16x9 releases, but it's not perfect. The biggest beef I have with this new disc is the apparent amount of edge enhancement. Why DVD authors can't go without artificially pumping up the sharpness of a transfer is beyond me. The haloing on this disc is not prevalent in every scene, but it's still there and this trend is getting very frustrating. Other than that, the new transfer is very pleasing. Image detail has improved a great deal over the previous editions, and colors even seem a bit more natural as well. Darker scenes are no longer as muddy (but still not as pristine as the better transfers out there), and the nasty source blemishes found on previous editions have been cleaned up.

The newly mastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio improves slightly over the previous 2.0 tracks by adding a bit more warmth and depth to the overall sound. This isn't a complete overhaul of the previous effort, but rather an enhancement. The low end seems a tad richer, and the top end has slightly more sparkle. I would like to have heard a bit more consistency with surround usage, but otherwise this track is a fine complement to the on-screen action.

Using the DVD-14 format, MGM placed both the 2.35:1 and 1.33:1 versions of the film on Side A, spread over two layers. Side B is single-layered, and home to all of the supplements, save for the two commentary tracks. The Singer/McQuarrie commentary discussed above makes its fourth appearance in the home video market on this new SE, along with a brand new commentary by the film's editor/composer John Ottman. While it's a much dryer track, Ottman does have some interesting comments to make about his editing decisions, the challenge of editing this film, his different musical cues and his style of composing. It's a great listen from an educational standpoint, but pretty dull for pure entertainment.

Side B of the new SE is home to no fewer than seven featurettes. Two of the featurettes are Easter eggs, accessed by correctly clicking a series of pictures from a hidden menu screen. Since it really torques me when DVD producers hide, in this case, over 20 minutes of material - and then make it an unintuitive puzzle to access - I'll give you the key to solve it. If you don't want to know, skip the next sentence. Click the large The Usual Suspects logo from the Side B main menu, and then select in this order: Quartet, Guatemala, Orca and Kobayashi. After that, you will have access to an interview (18 mins) with John Ottman, interviewed by Jeff Bond of Film Score Monthly. If you listen to Ottman's commentary track, you can save yourself 18 minutes. The other Easter egg is a very cool outtakes montage (3 mins) from the new interviews conducted for the disc. Most notably, Singer and the interviewer discuss how disappointing it was that the Jaws DVD didn't have the full 2-hour documentary from the laserdisc. Zings to you, Universal! The five remaining featurettes are a true pleasure. MGM has given fans well over an hour of very interesting interview segments by almost all of the key figures from the film (except writer Christopher McQuarrie and actor Pete Postlethwaite), as well as behind-the-scenes footage, including footage from the now legendary police line-up sequence. The participants are all very candid in their comments. Gabriel Byrne offers some very interesting personal insights, which gave me a newfound respect for the man. And Kevin Pollak, as usual when I see him in interviews, cracked me up many times. Pursuing the Suspects (25 mins) is a discussion about casting the project and getting the whole effort off the ground. Doin' Time with the Suspects (27 mins) picks up where the previous featurette left off by covering the actual shooting of the film. Keyser Sozë: Lie or Legend? (19 mins) is a neat little piece in which the participants talk about the mythology of the character, what it means to them and the popularity the name has gained over the years. The original promotional featurette (7 mins) has been included, as well as the Heisting Cannes with the Usual Suspects featurette (4 mins) that looks to be home video footage of the cast at the film's premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. And the best part of all of this is that these five featurettes can be played together. Yes, MGM has graciously included a "Play All" command for the featurettes. More zings to you, Universal!

Next up are five deleted scenes, each with a video introduction by John Ottman. The scenes are cool for fans to have access to, but are nothing really special in the grand scheme of things. A 7-minute gag reel (with video intro by Bryan Singer) has been included, which was made as a gift of sorts to the cast and crew. It's really pretty strange and even has a lame Keyser Sozë rap. It's not your traditional gag/outtake reel. But it's cool to have here. Finally, look for the film's theatrical trailer (with video intro by John Ottman), the international trailer and eight TV spots.

All in all, the new special edition of The Usual Suspects is a gigantic leap above the two older DVD editions. While the audio and video aren't perfect, they've come a long way and the bevy of special features will make even the most hardcore fan of the film giggle with glee. I wish MGM would have dropped the full screen version, and used the extra room on the dual-layered side for the video and perhaps the addition of a DTS track. But as it stands, this disc is a very nice entry in their growing catalog of special editions. Sell those old discs on Ebay and use the money to buy this new DVD, like pronto!

Greg Suarez
[email protected]

The Usual Suspects: Special Edition

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