Not The Usual -- Thriller's Wicked Entertainment Value Is Backed By A Talented Cast And A Dandy Plot

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XXX 1/2 "The Usual Suspects," with Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak. Directed by Bryan Singer from a script by Christopher McQuarrie. Alderwood, Crossroads, Everett Mall 1-3, Mountlake 9, Neptune, Parkway Plaza, SeaTac North. R - Restricted; violence and language. ------------------------------------------------------------------

Young filmmakers have filled movie houses with an alarming abundance of mind-numbing crime dramas lately. Maybe it's the influence of real masters like Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese. Or maybe these directors grew up with violence on television. Who knows?

The second feature from young director Bryan Singer opens with that same barrage of dark characters shooting, swearing and bleeding.

But that's where the comparisons end. "The Usual Suspects" is a gem of the late summer season - an imaginative, entertaining crime mystery with plenty of nerve and vigor.

Roger "Verbal" Kint, a crippled con man (Kevin Spacey), is one of two survivors of a massacre and ship-burning on a south Los Angeles pier. Dozens of charred bodies and $91 million for a supposed drug deal remain. Before Verbal can be questioned in full, he's offered immunity.

Something's up, and customs agent David Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) has only a few hours to talk to Verbal. Through their informal talk, a story is revealed: Five criminals hatched a plan while sequestered in a New York holding cell six weeks before. As the Los Angeles police start their own investigation, Verbal runs Kujan through the hoops, an interplay as exciting as an action sequence.

Each criminal has a likable side. There's the team of Fenster and McManus (Benicio DelToro and a fluid Stephen Baldwin), the quick-witted Hockney (an out-of-place Kevin Pollak) and the leader, a legendary ex-cop played with perfect pitch by Gabriel Byrne.

This is all standard, if solid, stuff. But Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, have plenty of surprises up their collective sleeve.

First off, not one but two phantoms come into play. One is Byrne as the nasty ex-cop who Kujan believes is the mastermind. The other is what elevates "Usual Suspects" above the tired genre: the character Keyser Soze, a faceless mastermind cops chase unsuccessfully and crooks fear. His strength comes from his will to do what his opponent won't.

Soze is a movie element so wonderful it will crop up in pop culture for years. Singer doesn't rely solely on unmasking Soze for the movie's fireworks. That comes from the interplay of a talented, deep cast that includes Giancarlo Esposito, Dan Hedaya and Suzy Amis. And the wonderful Pete Postlethwaite ("In the Name of the Father") has a dandy of a role as a Soze agent.

It's easy to see why Singer and Spacey won top honors at the Seattle International Film Festival: There's a wicked up-front entertainment value in their work.

Something about the lanky Spacey holds your attention completely.Previously relegated to small supporting roles ("Henry & June," "Glengarry Glen Ross"), this year he has come to the forefront with roles as Dustin Hoffman's wry partner in "Outbreak" and in the brassy "Swimming With Sharks."

It's the birth of a new star.