Friday, 21 September 2012

RETROSPECTIVE: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Pollak
Running Time: 106 minutes
Genre: Crime thriller

The Usual Suspects is my all time favourite film. Ever. It's one of the few films I've seen countless times and practically know every line off by heart. Everything about this film reeks of greatness. And it gets better with every viewing. That's saying something to the intricacy of the plot, the labyrinth plot and all round terrific performances on display. Director Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie crafted a film so clever, so smart, that even on my gazillionth time re-watching it; I pick up on something new, a smile or a reference, something simple that wows me. It is a film so clever it makes you feel a bit silly at the end for getting duped. With the emergence of Tarantino as a premier film-maker in the earlier part of the 1990s, the crime genre became awash with cheap imitations and knock-offs of his work, the crime ensemble, the tough guys with sharp tongues, a taste for violence and visual flair filled with pop culture beats. Singer and McQuarrie wisely neglected to include the latter trait. There are no retro 70s classics, no talk about McDonalds and Burger King and so on. The film is very much a self-contained entity. And that's what makes it a masterpiece. Blissfully residing somewhere between the old fashioned crime caper and the aforementioned Tarantino stylism of the ninties, The Usual Suspects is too clever to resort to such things. Everything that happens is necessary in the overall context of the tale that is being told. And it's a mighty pay-off that lacks the bloated nature and unnecessarily over-long running time that often plagues films of this type. Everything about this film is perfection.

Kevin Spacey (as Verbal Kint) and Gabriel Byrne (as Dean Keaton)

The success of the film is in no small part to the magnificent cast. Gabriel Byrne gives a career best performance as Dean Keaton, a disgraced former cop who despite his best efforts to leave the crime world, is pulled down by vindictive former peers, including Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). Kujan meets with Verbal Kint, played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey, one of two who survived a brutal harbour shoot-out the night before. Kujan's mission is to find out if Keaton was one of the men that was killed. What follows is an intricate tale of five criminals as they become embroiled with a mysterious and myth like criminal named Keyser Soze. The crew, consisting of Keaton, Kint, McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and Fenster (Benicio del Toro). An early scene that cements their bond through being victimized as 'the usual suspects' for a police line-up sets the team up and they plan to get even on the corrupt police force. Keaton's reluctance puts Kint's role in the team at risk, but is persuaded by Kint after a heart-to-heart. Once the crew is assembled the action comes at a frantic pace. The robbery of a bunch of corrupt NYPD officers is a sharp and efficient set piece. It gives us an insight into both the solidarity of the team, but also that they are professionals. Again, if the five criminals were played by other actors they'd risk becoming generic cardboard canon fodder, but in Singer and McQuarrie's hands, each is uniquely likeable in their own way, even del Toro's Fenster who has far less screen time than the others, but still makes an impression ("Flip you, flip ya for real!") that you are rooting for the gang to succeed. 

One thing that is apparent from early on is that everything is not as it seems. Kujan, essentially represents us, the viewer and has enough intuition to know Kint is holding out. As Kujan finds out more (from other detectives interviewing a Hungarian survivor of the shooting) the plot thickens further. The introduction of Redfoot the Fence (Peter Greene) further adds to the mystery, with the crew now placed in danger and immediate threat. The scenes with Redfoot are some of the best in the film, and highlights the vulnerability of them under threat from the more powerful Redfoot and the introduction of Kobayashi (the late Pete Postlethwaite) into proceedings complicates matters further. Watching the group of macho males descend into paranoia and fear under threat from Soze is terrific in parts. Baldwin (in the performance of his career) as McManus and not like the man you'd probably know best recently as a member of Celebrity Big Brother is a revelation. In anybody else's film, Baldwin's McManus would be the lead, oozing charm, likeability and with machismo to spare. Similarly Pollak's Hockney is a secondary character, but is highly entertaining (thanks in part to Pollak's razor sharp delivery and wise-cracking sensibility) and you do nothing but root for him to succeed. While Kint's story too relegates himself to a secondary character, his petty criminal mixed in with career criminals make him a more relatable character and his wanting to get the job done without violence (well, unless it's necessary) make him the perfect narrator for the story. 

Stephen Baldwin (as McManus) and Kevin Pollak (as Todd Hockney)

But it is truly Byrne's Keaton that is the focal point of the film. Is Kint protecting him by making him out to be such a nice guy? All the questions that arise from Kint's story in contrast to Kujan's version of Keaton. It must be noted too that Palminteri excels as the determined cop who is essentially the straight man of the piece, he knows certain facts, but is drip fed information much like the audience and his piecing together of the facts is the same as the audiences. But back to Keaton, Kint's version of him is a highly complex character, a man whose life has seemingly been destroyed by his past, but does that even matter as do we ever know if he's telling the truth (well the finale clears this up, but we are left guessing practically until the final scene). And Kujan spiteful hatred of Keaton ("Dean Keaton was a piece of shit") further puts questions in Kint's representation of Keaton. With this in mind, it is still impossible not to root for the Keaton we experience. Initially a beaten figure, once he joins with the four he becomes the central figure of the operation with his insight into police procedures and gives the team enough information to do the job right. The mere mention of Soze to the four (excluding Kint, who hadn't heard of him) brings that forlorn and defeated look back and the sense of dread  that the films opening scene may actually be what happened and that Keaton didn't actually make it out of the harbour. 

Again, nothing is never as it seems and that's what makes this film such a job and complete mindfuck. The big harbour finale reeks of dread and something is really, really wrong here (along with all the brutal shootings of course). Certain films that tease this amount of complexity usually tend to fall off in the final act for a reveal so pointless and obvious that is ruins what came before it. The Usual Suspects does no such thing. The 'suspects' know they are in above their heads but resolve to do it anyway to get away from Soze's grasp. Whatever the outcome, they'll be free. Singer handles the action here with aplomb. The violence hits hard, but never feels unnecessary or becoming anything like gun porn. All the guns do is symbolize a threat that has been lingering for the 'suspects' for a long time, that Soze is close and the truth too (note in the scenes with Redfoot, his goons are heavily armed, but no action is taken, symbolizing the 'suspects' getting closer to Soze). Another part that drives the film is a fiendishly sinister score composed by John Ottman. From the opening theme right through, Ottman's score sets the mood. It is a strikingly gorgeous score that adds to an already strong central theme of mystery and intrigue for the film. 

Endlessly quotable, an iconic ensemble and perhaps the finest twist in modern film history, The Usual Suspects is not only the best film of the ninties, it is one of the all time greatest. A film that cleverly plays with genre expectations and turns them on their head, Singer and McQuarrie delivered the rarest of treats, a film as clever as it thinks it is, even on repeat viewings, the twists and turns hold up. The elaborate mixture of actuality and fiction mirror a truly wonderful piece of modern film-making. Add to the mix, an Oscar winning performance by Spacey (and screenwriting award for McQuarrie) and terrific all around performances beyond the usual filler typically associated with the genre and you have an all time classic. Just amazingly amazing.


The Suspects: Hockney, McManus, Fenster (Benicio del Toro), Keaton and Kint

TV REVIEW: The Shadow Line (2011)

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Christopher Eccleston, Stephen Rea, Rafe Spall, Antony Sehr
Genre: Drama

It is easy to forget that not too long ago British television was the pinnacle of programming. Long before the HBO's of this world came along, the BBC (and ITV too) were throwing out show after show of immense quality. The detective drama in particular being a staple of British television over the years and with The Shadow Line, the BBC have delivered a show that remains true to the age old BBC style, but adding modern threads of grit and themes utterly consistent with the finest shows from the States. The Shadow Line is not only the best British drama of recent years, it's one that down the line will be looked at in the same vein as Tinker, Sailor, Soldier, Spy as a classic of the conspiracy/noir genre, a complex and enthralling thriller that exceeds all expectations. 

From early on, creator, writer and producer Hugo Blick sets out to be different. The first scene in particular sets up that this is not your usual police procedural with an inexperienced rookie being shown the ropes at a crime scene by the shady Sgt. Foley (David Schofield) and this sets the ominous overtone for the series seven episodes. These opening exchanges hint at something far different than the usual detective mystery drama, with the thin line between the supposed good and bad guys being non-existent, each character is shadier than the last. Everything is not as it seems and the sense of foreboding bleeds in every darkly lit scene. Jonah Gabriel (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a detective with a shady past of his own working on trying to solve the murder of a recently released crimelord, Harvey Wratten. On the other divide is Christopher Eccleston's Joseph Bede, a man trying to leave the criminal world, but whose own plans are thrown up in the air upon Wratten's death. Bede has to deal with his wife's illness and juggle an assortment of shady underworld characters, including the psychopathic nephew of Harvey, Jay (Rafe Spall), who is determined to kill his uncle's killer. Then there is Gatehouse (a creepy Stephen Rea), a man in the shadows seemingly controlling the show. Along with Spall's Jay, these are two of the most entertaining villains in recent television memory. Spall excels as Jay, delivering a performance that is terrifying and amusing in equal amounts. While the show is mainly laugh free, there are a few scenes that he brings chuckles, but never losing that menacing look. 

This makes Rea's Gatehouse all the more compelling and in complete contrast to Jay as he is a monster of a completely different kind. Quietly sinister and sombrely downbeat but intelligently played by Rea, his Gatehouse is the cold hearted centre of the series and whenever he appears, you know danger is near. As the show progresses, there are a stunning variety of twists, turns, shocks and genuinely disturbing moments. Gabriel's descent into this world and revelations about his own past and his secrets from his wife make him a compellingly flawed central character. Ejiofor is perfectly cast, varying from forlorn copper to a husband trying to juggle a series of mistakes and tribulations. Surprisingly violent, there are several moments throughout the show that will leave you speechless. There are too many sub-plots to go into detail here; with Tobias Menzies crusading journalist out to find the truth about Gabriel's past, or Bede's tragic relationship with his wife (Lesley Sharp), all taking up considerable time. But rather than weighing down the main plot line, these side plots build up the central characters and your connection with them, especially Eccleston's Bede, who becomes the tragic anti-hero of the piece, with you rooting for him to succeed. As the final episode begins, you wonder how on earth will Blick wrap this up and he succeeds in the most shocking and memorable way possible. For a show dedicated to focusing on near truths and deception, the finale is shockingly blunt and in your face. It is a terrific change of pace to a show that never tires of dropping hints and half-truths. The final scenes are the truth, whether you like it or not. 

The Shadow Line is a series of highly complex, clever set-ups and a pay off that is chilling, haunting and up there with the best in recent memory. Even the main theme (performed by Emily Barker) provides the perfect sound for the show, beautiful but with an underlying tone of threat and menace that will stick with you and haunt you long after it is over. This show is a compelling masterpiece. The plot is as deep and complex as they come and interweaves multiple angles. The performances are compelling (especially Eccleston who becomes the series heart and soul), and a final revelation that is nothing short of a shocking masterclass, The Shadow Line is television at its absolute best. A masterpiece.


Monday, 17 September 2012

Great Film Moments #1: Van Damme's monologue from JCVD (2008)

I won't lie, I've always been fond of Jean-Claude Van Damme. He starred in a few films that I loved when I was a kid, he kicked ass and was good at it. Recently his career has slumped a bit and has starred in his share of clunkers, but a few gems have appeared in his DTV career like the awesomely fun Universal Soldier: Regeneration and films like Assassination Games and Until Death, which were solid B-movies. But most have been throwaway clunkers while not as bad as Seagal's fall from grace, but still nonetheless not near his usual entertaining, fun and generally nonsense action films that he made in his heyday (Timecop, Universal Soldier etc.). 

Then 2008's JCVD came along. A surreal film. A meta-philosophical action drama in French about a has-been actor caught up in a bank robbery. What followed was a revelatory performance from an actor whose acting range was never even considered. And that's what makes this scene all the more monumental. And heartbreaking. The meta-project line is crossed and we are presented with a monologue that is perhaps more personal confession than Van Damme acting, but by fuck is it outstanding. It is a moment of breathtaking brilliance and beauty, something that it rarely seen on-screen these days; raw emotion. So much so, Time magazine called it the second best performance of 2008, second only to Heath Ledger's now iconic Joker portrayal in The Dark Knight. That tells you of the strength of the performance here. It is a jaw-dropping scene and performance from Van Damme. Career redefining, putting his excesses of the 90s and his personal addictions in context and giving him a second chance to perhaps turn the tide on his career to some extent. 

Thursday, 13 September 2012


Peter Greene has long since been one of my favourite supporting actors. This may be rooted in his performance in my favourite film of all time The Usual Suspects as the sinister and to be honest, absolute badass Redfoot. Many will know him from his role in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction as Zed - "Zed's dead baby, Zed's dead!". Others will know him as the villains in both The Mask and, erm, Martin Lawrence's Blue Streak. After coming to public attention for an acclaimed performance in the little seen Clean, Shaven, as the lead character with schizophrenia, Greene got cast in roles usually as the villain or a secondary henchman. Starring in two of the most iconic and popular films of the 90s and you think Greene would have been set. But like many talented performers, temptations can take their toll, which perhaps hindered his status as a reliable performer much like another actor I'm fond of, Tom Sizemore (Saving Private Ryan, Heat and countless other roles). Much to my joy, however, Greene has re-emerged recently, albeit in supporting bit-parts on television shows and cameos in films like Training Day in 2001. He had a superbly entertaining cameo in the opening scene of Timothy Olyphant led crime show Justified in 2010, which again exhibited his intensity and ability to portray quiet but psychotically dangerous villains. Last night, he popped up on a show I began watching the other night (from 2007), The Black Donnellys, again as a villain. But his calm and calculated Dokey is a breathe of fresh air in a show that doesn't know if it wants to be The Sopranos or The OC and elevates the show in the process. While having a latter CV of films I know little or heard little about, his recent more high profile appearances on television suggest that there's life left in the underrated bad ass yet. Embedded below are probably two of the best moments of 1995's The Usual Suspects.