Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Usual Suspects (1995)

Conversation overheard in the Werewolves on the Moon offices:

“Huzzah! Finished my Usual Suspects review, I’m off to the pub”

“Let’s see it” [pause] “It’s only one sentence long”

“It’s all that was needed, seriously, who hasn’t seen this”

“Do your job properly, or we’re not paying you”

“We get paid for this? Since when?”

Only kidding, we don’t have offices. Nevertheless, I’m damned if I know where I’m going with this one.

Contains someone being shown what will really was and spoilers below


Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s debut film, The Usual Suspects (August 25th in the UK) really was a case of lightning in a bottle. Singer, in particular has never been anywhere near as good as this initial outing, and for the most part (Way of the Gun excepted) McQuarrie has flattered to deceive. The cast assembled was at the top of their game, with most of them going on to bigger and better films afterwards (exception to Stephen Baldwin, where the only expansion he went on to was his waistline) and all put in performances that they have never really equalled. The Usual Suspects is a simple crime story with one of the most famous twist endings in the history of cinema, and the only real question for me on this sitting was “Does it still hold up?”

“Get out of here Spacey, and next time you go dog walking on Clapham Common remember to take a fucking dog”

The film opens with a foreshadow of the ending- the “heist” on the docks. It then cracks forward to Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) being interviewed by Chazz Palminteri about events that took place in the lead up to the blood bath. The rest of the movie is Verbal’s account, shown in flashback with interruptions with individual moments in the interview. Verbal is a brilliant storyteller, combining mundane anecdote with crystal clear detail to befuddle and toy with his would-be interrogator. Anyhow, from the moment the police pull a line up containing Kint, Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Hockney (Kevin Pollock) and Spacey colours the scene with little detail about the characters backgrounds, through the initial heist of New York’s finest taxi service, we’re pulled along for a fantastic ride.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that our characters are having their strings pulled behind the scene by Keyser Soze, a legendary crime lord who strikes fear into the hearts of villains everywhere. Our quintet deal with Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite), a limey lawyer that gives weasels a bad name, who offers them one last job that will clear their debt to Keyser Soze and allow them to leave in peace. The job, inevitably, goes tits up, which brings us back to the present, and leaves room for the endlessly parodied twist ending. Which I won’t blow, in case you’ve been locked in solitary since 1995 and don’t actually know what it is.

” 4 Across: Novel by Milan Kundera”

This script is brilliant. In fact, I find it difficult to believe that it would be possible to cock this film up, with a script as good as this one. Endlessly quotable, some of which have passed into legend (helped by Spacey’s delivery) such as “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist”, there are genuinely sparkling pieces of dialogue littered all the way through the movie. Spacey is, effectively, telling the longest shaggy dog story in history to Palminteri, and McQaurrie knew this when he was writing it (incidentally, Keyser Soze is/ was a partner in an LA law firm that McQuarrie was temping at- he just thought it was a cool name and deserved to be a villain in a movie) and as such he writes it to make it both convincing for the characters and the audience.

Given material like this the actors shine. Baldwin is over the top as McManus, and Byrne smoothly dangerous as Keaton, but Spacey’s Oscar-winning turn is scene stealing. It’s brilliant, actually, and I really enjoyed listening to Verbal spin his web again, even though I did  know what was coming. The only complaint I have is actually Del Toro, who’s Fenster is nigh on incomprehensible, but he’s not got a lot in the way of dialogue to deliver, so it doesn’t hurt the movie.

Pete regretted hiding Steve’s pie.

It’s strange, because I remember thinking at the time that (Spacey aside), Baldwin actually put in the best performance from the cons. Pollock is wonderfully dead-pan as Hockney, and Byrne is strangely sympathetic as Keaton, but Baldwin’s McManus is funny on occasion, borderline psychotic when he has to be, ruthless during the hit on Kobayashi, and efficient and merciless at the end. In light of this, it’s surprising that he hit the Big Macs so hard and basically became a human blimp struggling to squeeze into a wetsuit in DVD tripe like Sharks in Venice. In retrospect, I was wrong because the best supporting performance isn’t one of the cons, it’s Postlethwaite as Kobayashi. Chilling in his efficiency, but with a world-weariness that is quite astonishing, this is a cynical man, one who’s lived as a shadow’s right hand for a long time. It’s a great little turn.

This is a great film with fantastic individual set pieces that very rarely get talked about. When the gang decide to show Kobayashi that they can “touch him” in revenge of Fenster, it’s a brilliantly staged and wonderfully choreographed assassination sequence. When the moment comes, though, and they’re effortlessly faced down by an unarmed man with only a briefcase, the film is genuinely tense. The final raid on the ship itself is also superbly drawn, from Byrne’s feigned nonchalance as he wanders down the docks, to Baldwin ruthlessly stalking from room to room while Spacey hides in a stack of tyres, it’s effortlessly gripping and really sweeps you up. You want these criminals to get away with this, because despite the odds, and despite everything, they’re actually likeable. You know they don’t of course, but by this stage of the movie the point is the identity of Keyser Soze, and how did Verbal survive when all the more capable gangsters died. This is a stunning film.

Is that you Mrs. Robinson? No, fuck, it’s Keyser Soze. Never mind then

The Usual Suspects is a very famous twist movie, and also a very effective one. I remember seeing this in 1996, and not spotting it coming. Perhaps I was more innocent back then, and not looking for these type of endings, but the film keeps its cards close to its chest, and as such on first viewing it does come across as a surprise. It’s helped by the way that Singer films the moment of revelation with the slo-mo coffee cup hitting the floor as the film drops into place, so all credit to all involved. This time round, however, I knew the twist. Yet the film is so good, that even knowing it was coming, I didn’t care, in fact, I had fun spotting minor clues all the way through the film that would have informed towards the ending had I spotted them earlier.

I haven’t got a lot more to say here, because this is just such a good film and such a famous one that there’s no point me waffling on. Instead, I’m just going to sum up. The Usual Suspects was revered at the time and rated incredibly highly. Unlike most twist films, I think it does still hold up, and although knowing what’s coming will eliminate the prospect of being surprised when the film reveals its secrets, that doesn’t, for me, negate any enjoyment. This is a nailed on stunner of a film, the second legitimate maximum in my run and a film that I recommend to everyone. The Usual Suspects can have 4 odious criminals in an identity parade out of a possible 4, and I thoroughly enjoyed it again.

Next up, is notorious sex stinker The Color of Night.

Until then,

Jarv

The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

110 responses to “Jarv’s Birthday Series Redux: The Usual Suspects (1995)”

  1. Jarv says :

    Great film this one. Literally had nothing to say. Sorry.

    • Toadkillerdog says :

      Great review jarv, and this is one of my all time favorite flicks.
      It holds up extremely well even given the twist – which I did not see coming either.
      Caught me off guard as much as Crying game did in a much different way of course (I am ashamed to say because dude had thick fingers and neck which should have been a give away) but I digress.

      I love Usual Suspects.

      I have not watched it in about four years but I will make time for it soon.

      And BTW thank you for the Keyser Soze tidbit. I did not know he was a real lawyer.

      • Jarv says :

        Cheers TKD.

        This is such a good film, it really is, and it’s a shame that Singer plummetted so far so fast afterwards. Mcquarrie made Way of the Gun which is totally underrated.

        It’s a great story that one. I heard it on an interview on one of those shitty I Heart 1995 shows, made me laugh.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Yes, Way of Gun is damned good.

        Singer is an enigma. Only X2 and Valkyrie have come even within sniffing distance of Usual Suspects in their technical achievement as well as writing. Long sniffing distance

        I thought Xmen was good, very entertaining but would have only been marginal except for Jackman’s star making turn.

        X2 – at the time I thought it was the best superhero movie, but it does not hold up well – just like Spidey 2. Once again it lives off of Jackman’s performance, although I do think it a better movie than the first.

        SR – wow. What a misfire, no need to dive into that mess. It was technically well made, but just woeful in about every other manner.

        Valkyrie, it was technically well made, but that was about it. The story was pretty bland and even though the outcome was known, that does not mean the story could not have been compelling. Lots of historical outcomes are known by general audience before they see a movie about it. That is what great writing and directing have to overcome

      • Jarv says :

        I think X2 is dreadful, to be honest. I find it staggeringly boring. Of Singer’s other efforts, I think Apt Pupil isn’t too bad, and I’ve not seen Valkyrie.

        I do agree that X2 is better than the first, but my christ has it aged badly, and I wish he’d go and work out his issues elsewhere.

      • Droid says :

        I like Apt Pupil.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Ha!
        No, X2 aint dreadful – at least not to me. It still ranks in my top 10 of superhero flicks. But I absolutely agree that Singers needs to work out his issues without using his movies as platforms because he is too ham fisted.
        The magneto being gay and superman wearing gay pride underoos have no place in the stories that were being told at the time.

        Not that gay issues can not be discussed, but do not artificially graft them on to the story and then pat yourself on the back for being so ‘clever’

      • Jarv says :

        I think the opening to X2 buys it a lot of love that it shouldn’t otherwise get. Aside from that, though, it’s monumentally boring.

    • Droid says :

      Love this film but kind of killed it in the 90’s. I thought it was the bees knees and watched it about 10 times. Twice at the cinema. Haven’t seen it since overdosing on it. Might be time to relapse.

      I especially like the way Singer blatantly teases at the start with the slow zoom shot of Verbals hiding spot, cross cutting with the shadowy figure shooting Keaton. Think there’s a line where Keaton recognises him, and it cuts to the hiding spot.

      I think all the actors do great work. Definitely Baldwins one shining moment.

      • Jarv says :

        Yeah, everyone is good in this. Byrne and Baldwin have never been better.

        I also killed it in the 90’s. Just a top film.

      • Droid says :

        This or Millers Crossing for Byrne.

      • Jarv says :

        Completely forgot Miller’s Crossing.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Millers crossing is great. And Baldwin has been (has-been get it I made a funny!) on a losing streak ever since US. In fact he just lost again to Kevin Costner in a lawsuit that proves just how stupid he really is

      • Jarv says :

        Baldwin is totally insane. He was on our Big Brother or something like that preaching and shit. He’s so fat he could enter sumo against Don Murphy.

      • Jarv says :

        Talking about insane, I’m really enjoying writing this color of night review.

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Well, I guess he wanted to be known other than being the ugly baldwin

      • Toadkillerdog says :

        Color of night? is that the Bruce Willis movie?

        I have no recollection of it other than I paid to see it in the theater but cannot recall one thing about it

      • Jarv says :

        That’s the one. Koutch remembers it.

        I’m giving it a high rating. Because it’s hilarious.

      • koutchboom says :

        Ive never seen Color of Night, I own it though for some reason?

        Speaking of Pettie Ports, anyone remember Brassed Off, I recall nothing about it except that its about a band and I dug it. I need to see In The Name Of The Father, Petey was also very good in JP2 along with Storme.

      • Jarv says :

        Scheduled for tomorrow AM.

        It’s basically a skin flick, Koutch, one of those shitty post-Basic Instinct “erotic thrillers”.

      • Jarv says :

        Admittedly, this means next up for me is Rob Schneider Family Movie Surf Ninjas. Fuck.

        When I found out it was a family film, I nearly binned it.

      • koutchboom says :

        I’ve seen parts of it, I know it’s reputation, I’ve just never sat through the whole damn thing.

      • Jarv says :

        You should. It’s hilarious.

      • Bartleby says :

        Brassed Off is a good movie. I’ve been trying to put together an ‘Netflix Film Festival’ sort of thing for PCN, and in picking the movies I pulled that one out and rewatched it. Still holds up.

        He was arguably the best thing about JP2. They really should have done more with the character.

        Jarv is gonna scream, but I liked him iName of the Father.

      • Jarv says :

        Fuck in the Name of its Father.

        Disgusting piece of repellent pro-IRA propaganda. Conlon since admitted to being fecking guilty.

        Bullshit rewriting of history. Fucking IRA cunts. Orangutan of Doom, instantly.

      • Jarv says :

        Brassed off is OK. The Full Monty is better.

      • Jarv says :

        Even thinking about it has pissed me off so much that I accidentally got the title wrong.

      • Bartleby says :

        surf ninjas? oh god. That’s a guaranteed Orang of doom right there. I remember a scene of a kid using a sega gamegear to make real-world leslie nielsen grab his own junk.

      • Jarv says :

        Oh shit.

        See, I totally went on the title there. Was thinking it sounded Troma-esque.

        Not happy about that one at all. Mind you, I’m on a strong run, even Color of Night has its plus sides.

      • Jarv says :

        I’m going to be on a 1.65 average after 20 films, I think. I can’t see the Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag helping me out.

        Then I’ve got a good run. I think I’m going to end up on about an average of 1.8 for the lot. It’s the 21st century, it just kills all of us.

        Droid’s got away lightly, but Pillows had something like 7 0 chang films in his, Wolf’s nailed a few low ones as well.

      • Droid says :

        Probably thinking of Surf Nazis or whatever that movies called.

      • Jarv says :

        I’m a mug for titles like that.

        I’ve seen Surf Nazis. It’s shit.

      • Bartleby says :

        I’ve got to go back and solidify my list. I’ve got a pretty mild release period–early April, plenty of decent stuff, few great ones. The difficulty is the ‘something you haven’t seen or haven’t seen lately’. Most of this stuff I have seen.

        I just watched the second movie in the series: Wrecked, with Adrien Brody. Need to write it up. Next is Circo I think, a docu about a circus family which Im using to replace that Gondry movie that just sounds like pure tedium.

      • Jarv says :

        I’ve seen that, I think.

        Well, I fell asleep in it.

  2. Bartleby says :

    A great film and a great write-up. 1995 was a strong year for movies. Nice shout-out to Postlewhaite. Guy was an underrated gem. Look at his last performance in The Town, where he was clearly very physically sick, and still turns in the best bit of the film. Top notch guy, who never really phoned it in even when he was in stuff like Dragonheart or Clash of the Titans.

    • Jarv says :

      Cheers. So much of the 90’s was strong. When I think about the drivel we’ve had in the last few years, it’s amazing how underrated it was as a decade.

  3. tombando says :

    It’s great. Never saw it coming either first time I watched this. Pollak and Byrne are the ones that stand out for me, honestly besides Spacey. Can you imagine the spinoff of a Keyser Soze movie, where he’s as told by Spacey? That’d be a worthy viewing as long’s Cokey stayed far away from it. Anyhows—this is great, holds up just fine, ditto your review.

  4. Droid says :

    A spinoff about Keyser Soze is a terrible idea. It totally demystifies the legend of the character.

    And that’s all Keyser Soze is. It’s a legend. Nothing Verbal says about Soze is actually true. He’s perpetuating a myth. He’s created a supervillain, and uses the myth of Soze to frighten, control and manipulate.

    Verbals just the man behind the curtain.

    • Droid says :

      But this is the absolute genius of the screenplay. I could be 100% wrong. This is my opinion, and I believe I’m right, but there is absolutely no evidence one way or the other. I could be right, I could be wrong. Soze could be and have done everything Verbal says he has done.

      Just consider the source of all your information.

      • Jarv says :

        I think you’re right. Verbal isn’t a physically intimidating guy. He may have been able to gun down the family and whatever, but he’s not on the scale that the legend would require.

        And he’s a liar.

      • Droid says :

        I think I’m right, but there is a possibility that I’m wrong, because of the way the screenplay is written. Since 90% of the film is Verbals version of the story, most of it is horseshit IMO.

      • Jarv says :

        It really is a stupendous screenplay. It’s so good actually, that it was unfuckupable. Singer would have had to do something absurd to make a bollocks of it.

      • Droid says :

        I agree. But I was also thinking last night that Singer did make a very stylish film. I can’t think of any subsequent Singer film that comes close to being as stylish.

      • Jarv says :

        No, I can’t either. It looks and sounds great.

    • Jarv says :

      It’s true. Keyser Soze is a bogeyman, something to scare them into doing what’s right. He’s, in reality, just a very high-level mob boss. But Verbal has spread this mystique.

      Think Wizard of Oz

  5. Droid says :

    Anne Hathaway has described the Catwoman character in TDKR as “a psychological terrorist.”

    In other words, a woman.

    Hey-O!

    • Jarv says :

      *badabum-ching*

      Droid will be here all week. Try the veal, and don’t forget to tip your waitress.

      • Jarv says :

        In all honesty, why can’t she just be a cat burgler?

      • Jarv says :

        From the Guardian-

        This is the best comment about England that I’ve seen in a long time:

        They are unlikely to be world beaters, but they are not embarrassing.

        First time in ages they haven’t been a national disgrace. Well done Roy.

  6. Droid says :

    Ebert’s an odd duck.

    There’s an early scene in which Lincoln tries to shoot a vampire, but that won’t work because they’re already dead. Then whatever can he do? “Well,” he tells Henry, “I used to be pretty good at rail-splitting…” This line drew only a few chuckles from the audience, because the movie cautiously avoids any attempt to seem funny.

    The film, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and written by Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel, handles all these matters with an admirable seriousness, which may be the only way they could possibly work.

    I have to disagree. This needs to have a sense of humour to work. It doesn’t have to be a comedy, but it needs the same kind of self-aware, knowing silliness that made Battleship such a fun movie.

  7. Droid says :

    This is totally baffling. The Argus review called for less CA player contracts and a stronger focus on Test players. So… they’ve not given Ed Cowan a contract. WTF?

    • Jarv says :

      Presumably Warner got one?

      I reckon Cowan is more important to you than Warner. One of the problems you’ve had in recent times was that it was very easy to rip out one of the openers and the number 3 and 4 (Ponting). Watto would hang around for 50-odd, then run either himself or whichever poor fecker he was batting with out, which meant that realistically, Clarke, Hussey and Iron Gloves Haddin would be rebuilding almost every innnings.

      The other problem was the piss poor bowling. Did Mitch get one?

  8. tombando says :

    Actually they are planning another Major League? That is a terrible idea. Late entry sequels are usually very badly done. First one was fun but enough already.

  9. tombando says :

    Crusade>Doom>Skull>Turdmen

  10. tombando says :

    Though am w Droid @Skull, liked it ok despite itself. Was really static and its true, Indy was just carried along. The Elvis monkeys made me laugh though that Was truely stupid too.

  11. tombando says :

    Yes

  12. ThereWolf says :

    Good ‘un, Jarv.

    Yeh, brilliant film. Amazed I’ve only seen it once. I must be due a return soon. I do remember saying, as the credits rolled, that I didn’t think Verbal was Soze. Just couldn’t get my head around it. So, it’s interesting to read yours & R2’s comments above – the man behind the curtain stuff – quite an eye-opener, I hadn’t framed it that way.

    Baldwin and Pollock didn’t get on, apparently. They were still feuding years later. The ‘making of’ is worth a look if you haven’t seen it.

    … “(England) are unlikely to be world beaters, but they are not embarrassing.” Jesus, is that what we aspire to now, to be not embarrassing? Fucking hell…

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