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The Usual Suspects (1995)

by on 2012/03/24

“It all has a system, Dave. It all makes sense when you look at it right. You’ve got to stand back from it, you know?”

* * * *

With The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer scored an immediate hit, as successful with audiences as with most critics. It capitalized on the reputation of some of its performers, cemented the fame of others, and catapulted Singer himself into a career including Superman Returns, Valkyrie, and the X-Men movie series.

The tale — or rather its telling — begins in the office of a police station. A frightened, palsied Roger “Verbal” Kint (The Ref’s Kevin Spacey) is pressed to retrace the details of a heist gone wrong. The lone survivor of a botched drug job, he reluctantly answers the lawmen’s questions before he leaves their unprotective custody. What follows illustrates his story.

Six weeks earlier, in New York City, this petty crook found himself pulled into a line-up of four other “usual suspects”, a group of shady hoods including a con man with a speech impediment (Sin City’s Benicio Del Toro), an embittered ex-cop (End of Days Gabriel Byrne), and a pair of thugs with anger management issues (Stephen Baldwin and Kevin Pollack, also of End of Days).

Once brought together, the five decide to form a team. They are hired by a Mr. Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) to work for Keyser Soze, a legendary kingpin, possibly a myth. They are offered a “suicide” mission to disrupt a competitor’s drug deal, and allowed to keep any cash they find at the site.

To say any more would be spoiling a brilliant tale. Despite its apparent low-budget, this character-driven piece recalled a kind of Glengarry Glen Ross, with its atmosphere of desperate anti-camaraderie. The cast is formidable, additional roles being played by solid character actors, including Giancarlo Esposito, Peter Greene, Clark Gregg, Dan Hedaya, and Chazz Palminteri.

As our conduit to their world, Spacey pulls off perhaps the most impressive feat of all in his performance. Anyone who has seen him interviewed will immediately recognize the difference between his bullied little chatterbox and the commoner sardonic confidence. The words are solid, the delivery is exemplary, but especially impressive are his changes in expression as Palminteri presses him for new details, or confronts him with contradictions.

His narrative voice-over alone, however, does not a neo-noir make. If the film stock doesn’t attend the old school, then nearly everything else does. Dubious characters in gritty situations, flashbacks and double-crosses, mysteries and tragedies, silhouetted shadows and reflective tricks, even hats and trench coats, cigarettes and their dramatized lighting.

Ironically, my greatest criticism may be of many viewers’ favourite scene. Without revealing too much, in one flashback we are shown the supposed history of the mysterious Keyser Soze. Its tone is distinctly exploitative, and its style looks over-produced, both aspects significantly different from its context. Whether the jarring combination is done with intent or not, the result seems superfluous, and easily could have been cut without diminishing the rest.

That one blip aside, The Usual Suspect remains an entertaining success, more substantial than its renowned twist ending might suggest. In bringing noir conventions to a present-day ensemble thriller, its creators have wrought an admirable affair which not only stands up to, but impresses even more with, subsequent re-viewings.

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

106 minutes

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