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