Crooks, Creeps And Cons

In an age when all movie genres are being subverted, postmodernized, de-constructed, film noir is a tough genre to mess around with. For many true movie fiends, noir is the key American movie type, and the most fun when it's done right. The Usual Suspects is done right. Here's an intelligent movie, with no special effects, no infantile charades of violence, released during the summer splatter season.

You have to pay close attention to this film, to listen hard to its cross-fires of dialogue. Writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer are talented movie-makers who've made one previous film, "Public Access," which shared the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Festival. "Suspects" marks a big leap forward for this team. It's a tough movie about five tough guys who first meet in a jail cell where they've been brought as suspects in a heist. They are Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), who was a corrupt cop but is now trying to go straight (maybe); McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a short-fused break-in artist; Hockney (Kevin Pollak) a hardware specialist; Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), a weirdo who mumbles like a crook in a Dick Tracy comic, and "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a crippled con man.

The collision of these five felons sets off a story line that's the most convoluted since Humphrey Bogart's classic "The Big Sleep." Out of jail, the fab five are conscripted by the sinister Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite). He's working for KeyserSoze, a Hungarian crime lord whose homicidal ferocity has made him a figure of terrifying legend. His mission for the five is to stop a rival crime boss's $91 million drug deal. The caper, masterminded by the invisible Soze, turns out to be booby-trapped by explosive bursts of deceit and death. The story is told in flashbacks, as it's dragged out of Verbal, the sole survivor (maybe) of the five, in a withering interrogation by Ku-jan (Chazz Palminteri), a federal agent obsessed by the elusive Soze.

"The Usual Suspects" has a surface resemblance to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." But where Tarantino was out to deconstruct the film noir, to create the ultimate parody of the metaphysical gangster film, Bryan Singer wants to re spect its classical form. He and McQuarrie do so, using fusillades of language that are as brutal as the movie's bullets and bombs. Newton Thomas Sigel's succulent photography and the double-duty gifts of John Ottman, who supplied both the triphammer editing and the mordant musical score, add to the seductive mood and narrative fascination. But what's most compelling is the brilliant acting by an irresistible ensemble: the urbane yet vicious Byrne, the baroque Pestleth-waite, the relentless Palminter and the creepily quiet Spacey. "The Usual Suspects" is the best, most stylish crime movie since Stephen Frears's 1990 "The Grifters." Movies still look great in basic noir.