The Usual Suspects


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The Usual Suspects
"Singer and McQuarrie expertly sustain a rich and tantalising conceit, keeping the reader guessing to a superb climax – and beyond."

As the dust settles on Bryan Singer’s controversial and (reasonably) well-received blockbuster Valkyrie, it’s a joy to revisit the film that first propelled him into the Hollywood Big League. It hasn’t dated and the quirky energy, wit, peerless handling of actors and all-round sheer class on display are remarkable considering it was only his second film.

It still seems fresh after all these years and makes you realise what all the fuss was about in the first place. In fact, for all the technical accomplishment (and undoubted original touches) of his special effects-heavy behemoths like Superman Returns and the first two X-Men, I’d still rank this as his best film.

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The set-up, in case you were in Outer Mongolia for most of 1995, is essentially simple. In the aftermath of a pitched gun battle on a freighter moored in a California harbour, customs investigator Dave Kujan (Palminteri) interviews one of only two survivors: ‘Verbal’ Kint (Spacey) a petty crook and conman a long way from his New York stamping grounds.

Kint retells the tale of what brought him here – a tale which starts back in the Big Apple, when a truck hijacking results in four underworld heavy hitters being pulled in and put together with Verbal in the line-up: ex-cop mastermind Keaton (Byrne); streetwise driver Fenster (Del Toro); ornery grease-monkey Hockney (Pollak); and psychotic trigger man McManus (Baldwin). The cops have nothing to go on and when the crims stay mum, they have to release them.

But while together in the holding pen, they decide to take revenge for their rough treatment and the general effrontery of even being questioned over such a low-rent score. So they hatch a plan to hijack a smuggling operation by a ring of bent cops and, since Verbal has a plan for the heist, he’s reluctantly accepted on the team. All goes well, but the attempt to fence the proceeds takes the gang to LA and into the orbit of notorious, semi-mythical master criminal Keyser Soze.

Kujan realises he might finally have a chance of ID-ing the elusive Soze, whose tentacles stretch all around the world, and quizzes Verbal unmercifully as the time when he has to charge him or let him go draws near. Meanwhile the other survivor of the gun battle is awaking from a coma – and babbling about how he saw Keyser Soze himself, on the boat...

To say any more would be to give too much away. This is one of those films where the pleasure is in the puzzle – trying to work out who’s lying, scanning every character’s every word and gesture for some clue as to which, if any, of the gang, might be Soze, or even whether he exists at all. Singer and McQuarrie expertly sustain a rich and tantalising conceit, keeping the reader guessing to a superb climax – and beyond. Even today the message boards and chat rooms of the movie geek community constantly buzz with some new theory as to who killed who, and why.

The twists and turns recall Raymond Chandler at his best, as does the atmosphere of mistrust and betrayal, a world-weary world where calling someone your friend is the biggest mistake a poor sap can make and, no matter how smart you are, someone’s always two steps ahead of you. But if this film was just an exercise in puzzle-solving, its appeal and interest would be much more limited. And, to be fair, some critics (and filmgoers of my acquaintance) have dismissed it as just that.

But they’re wrong, basically. Singer is interested in his five flawed anti-heroes as people, not just ciphers. Their twisted code of honour and professional pride dooms them to become further enmeshed in Soze’s web and the writer and director fashion a hundred telling details that make you root for them and want them all to come through unscathed – even when it becomes pretty clear that ain’t gonna happen...

And then there’s the cast, of course. With the possible exception of Reservoir Dogs, I can’t think of a film with so much perfectly-cast talent delivering top-of-their-game performances per square foot. Spacey (bagging one of the film’s two Oscars) gives a wonderfully subtle and slippery turn as the nervous, crippled Kint, the very definition of an unreliable narrator. Keaton brings an exhausted pathos to his role as the bent cop constantly dragged back into a corrupt and violent world despite all his efforts to go legit, but also displays enough steely charisma and perception of his comrades’ foibles to leave you wondering if he could be the Stringpuller-General.

Baldwin and Pollak, as the two blue collar hard men constantly butting heads, strike some real sparks off each other (a relationship that, judging by some of the DVD extras, seems to have made the jump into real life). And Del Toro gives a real star-making turn as the sharp-suited, swaggering and unintelligible Fenster, exasperating friend and foe alike with rapid-fire mumblings that make Brando at his most-mocked sound like John Gielgud.

Even the support acts are peerless – Palminteri’s dogged and increasingly desperate lawman, Suzy Amis as Keaton’s long-suffering lawyer girlfriend (the film’s only female character, which is something of a flaw considering how important the broads were to Chandler’s urban fables) and Postlethwaite as the mysterious, oddly-accented lawyer Kobayashi.

Singer’s memorable description of him – ‘an English actor playing a character with a Japanese name delivering his lines in a Pakistani accent’ – gives a sense of the film’s global reach and ambition, going beyond the American shores of the noir genre to tap into older myths of the Arch-Thief and the Satanic Trickster.

It is elements like this that make The Usual Suspects, unlike many twist-based offerings, reward repeated viewings. Perhaps it just misses the genre-transcending greatness of Scorsese and Coppola at their best, but in its own terms it’s a film that (unlike its characters) gets everything right.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2009
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The Usual Suspects packshot
Five criminals thrown together in a police line-up decide to team up for a high-stakes job.
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Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Suzy Amis, Pete Postlethwaite, Dan Hedaya

Year: 1995

Runtime: 106 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US, Germany

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