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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Full List for the Birthday Series Redux:
- 2011- The Skin I Live In (2.5 out of 4)
- 2010- The Last Exorcism (2.5 out of 4)
- 2009- Post Grad (1 out of 4)
- 2008- The House Bunny (1 out of 4)
- 2007- Knocked Up (1 out of 4)
- 2006- Volver (1 out of 4)
- 2005- Red Eye (2 out of 4)
- 2004- Dead Clowns (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2003- Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (1 out of 4)
- 2002- Talk to Her (4 out of 4)
- 2001- Jeepers Creepers (2 out of 4)
- 2000- Gossip (1 out of 4)
- 1999- All About My Mother (1 out of 4)
- 1998- The X-Files (1 out of 4)
- 1997- Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (2 out of 4)
- 1996- The Last Supper (3 out of 4)
- 1995- The Usual Suspects (4 out of 4)
- 1994- The Color of Night
- 1993- Surf Ninjas
- 1992- The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag
- 1991- Pump Up the Volume
- 1990- Wild at Heart
- 1989- Bull Durham
- 1988- Crossing Delancey
- 1987- The Big Easy
- 1986- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
- 1985- Better off Dead
- 1984- Oxford Blues
- 1983- MetalStorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn
- 1982- The Thing
- 1981- Honky Tonk Freeway
- 1980- Schock
- 1979- Rich Kids
- 1978- Coma