Do you guys know about these “Usual Suspects”? They’re this group of criminals who get rounded up one day for a line up for some crime none of them had anything to do with, and it pisses them off so much that they decide to pool their resources for a job that will get them some diamonds and humiliate the police by exposing their corruption. As a bonus it will also allow them to terrorize an uptight Paul Bartel and blow up his car. But when they go to fence the jewels they realize they’ve been pulled into this whole other thing with an infamous boogie man super-criminal who now says they owe him and have to do a job for him or their loved ones will be assaulted and killed. Or at least that’s what this lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite, INCEPTION) tells them. Or at least that’s the story that Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey, MOON, The Equalizer) tells Customs Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri, BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON) when he wants to know what led up to the burning ship full of dead bodies discovered last night.
Yeah, actually this movie is pretty complicated, and that’s just the basics there. There’s also the whole thing about a Hungarian burn victim survivor of the boat fire and the FBI agent (Giancarlo Esposito, DO THE RIGHT THING, The Equalizer) bringing in a translator and sketch artist before surgery to try to get him to tell what he knows about the mysterious Keyser Soze and trying to get the information to Agent Kujan in time and etc.
To get through the maze you better enjoy the company of this crew of crooks. Keaton (Gabriel Byrne, END OF DAYS) is the serious guy, kind of the leader. He’s an infamous corrupt cop turned crime boss (or something) who now is in love with his lawyer (Suzy Amis, FIRESTORM) and planning to go straight until this lineup incident convinces him it’ll never work. McManus (Stephen Baldwin, POSSE) is kind of a loose cannony tough guy, the brash one. Since Baldwin is now known as the conservative Baldwin brother it’s funny that his character wears a Confederate flag hat in one scene and uses the word “fag” in another. His partner is Fenster (Benicio Del Toro, THE HUNTED), the scene stealer of the movie. He’s bizarrely made up, dresses like Scarface and mumbles in a made up accent. Del Toro decided, correctly, that none of his dialogue was important, and that it was better to sound interesting than be understood by the audience. (On disc you can turn on the subtitles, though.)
And then, weirdly, the comedian Kevin Pollak (END OF DAYS) plays Hockney. This may be a coincidence, but it came at the height of Tarantino fever, when we were starting to see counter-intuitive casting choices for tough guys. That’s how we ended up with Billy Connelly the trenchcoat wearing gunman of the BOONDOCK SAINTS saga. You can put Pollak in a flight jacket but he still looks small and out of place with this group. And I kinda like that.
Dan Hedaya (TIGHTROPE, The Equalizer) has a supporting role – it’s his office where Kujan interviews Kint. I mention it because remember he was the dad in CLUELESS earlier in the summer. It’s cool to see him show up again.
Also in the cast is Jack Shearer (END OF DAYS).
It’s not really a heist movie in the sense of having alot of planning and build up. The robberies are sudden and quick. The gang look pretty scary with different types of masks, they smash windows with crowbars and don’t hesitate to shoot. Even Verbal shoots a guy in his own story (I woulda left that part out if I was him). One of the more exciting moments is when they decide to terrorize the lawyer Kobayashi, and we don’t know what they have in store for him. He’s in an elevator with two other men, presumably heading up to the floor where the shit will go down. But before they get there the lights go out in the elevator, there’s a sound of silenced gunfire, and when the light comes back on the two men are on the floor with splatters of blood on the wall behind where their heads were. McManus is up above with a gun, smiling.
The filmatism is strong and confident, especially compared to director Bryan Singer’s lower profile debut, PUBLIC ACCESS, which I didn’t like at all. He’s a young director with a real-movie budget for the first time (only $5.5 million, but not a student film) and he shows little restraint with the dramatic crane shots and slow zooms into actor’s faces as they’re thinking and of course if you’ve seen it there’s a meticulous figuring-shit-out montage at the very end (kinda the basis of the SAW franchise in my opinion). Show-offy shit, but it works. I think a big part of it is the score by John Ottman. It’s eerie and elegant, gentle piano solos with a tinge of CANDYMAN that build into something bigger and even more foreboding. It probly doesn’t hurt that Ottman is also the editor, so he can be hands on in timing the image to the music swelling.
And of course Singer has put together a powerhouse cast and given them a bunch of stuff to chew on. Spacey (whose name is way down in the credits) was the show-stealer, a smart guy and fast-talker, but meek compared to the browbeaters he’s now known for playing. He sells both his physical weakness and his emotional breakdown when Kujan tries to convince him that his hero Keaton was setting him up and might be Keyser Soze. He’s in control of the whole story and still convinces us he’s pathetic.
Watching it this time I think my favorite non-Del Toro acting moment is from Palminteri. He does alot of exposition dumping and stuff but the great moment is after he’s let Verbal go and he’s sitting on the desk drinking his coffee and staring at the bulletin board. And it’s not even the moment when he sees something on the board that makes him realize Verbal was pulling his chain. It’s before that, the look of satisfaction. The well, we didn’t win this one, but we gave it our best. Just enjoying the moment.
On the surface this is a pretty timeless movie. The clothes and hair are never specific to the ’90s, there’s no contemporary music, and cultural references are to, like, the JFK assassination, not “U Can’t Touch This.” But it also really captures a moment in time because of the cast and where they were in their careers right then. For both Spacey (who won an Oscar for best supporting actor) and Benicio del Toro it was the huge breakout role that turned them into A-list actors. For Byrne it was another movie, along with MILLER’S CROSSING, that would earn him huge respect – though I feel like that has kind of gone away over time. Am I wrong? It doesn’t seem like people think of him as much these days.
It was also the breakthrough for Postlethwaite. We’d seen him in ALIEN 3: THE REVENGE OF ALIEN, but this was the start of a brief period in the ’90s when he was everywhere. In the following two years alone he was in JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, DRAGONHEART, BRASSED OFF!, ROMEO + JULIET, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, AMISTAD and a couple others. And it was maybe a career peak for Baldwin (who gets top billing) as a leading man. I guess maybe BIO-DOME and THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS changed his image too much to get away from being the low rent Baldwin. (Although I liked him in CUTAWAY in 2000).
At any rate, this would be the last time Baldwin and Del Toro could play partners and Del Toro is the one that dies in the middle.
And a sure sign that this is a ’90s crime movie is the (uncredited) appearance of Peter Greene as Redfoot. He had already done LAWS OF GRAVITY, CLEAN, SHAVEN, JUDGMENT NIGHT and PULP FICTION (and was the bad guy in THE MASK). All of this was obviously done as a practice run to prepare him for the big leagues in his following role, Mercenary #1 in UNDER SIEGE 2: DARK TERRITORY. He would also play Detective Artie Pluchinsky in TICKER.
(By the way, Wikipedia has a long list of actors who were supposedly offered the small part of Redfoot, the most interesting being Johnny Cash.)
So does that mean it holds up well 20 years later? Yes and no. But I think the difference isn’t so much that it’s 20 years later as it’s that I’m 20 years older. This is alot of posing and puzzling that’s still fun to watch, but not as deep as it probly seemed to me when I was younger. I don’t really think the idea of the invisible super villain is as awesome as it seemed back then. It kinda seems dorky, like when a young man who shall remain nameless discovered that some other kids were using the same fort as him in the park so he left a threatening note from a fictional older kid named “Ace.” From what I remember those kids were skeptical, and I’m not sure I buy that people would fear Keyser Soze so much given that the scarier stuff (having files on everybody) they don’t know about until it happens to them. And I don’t think I follow why he even did this whole complicated scheme with the people in the police lineup. It was to kill that one old guy that had seen his face, right? I feel like he could’ve done that with less time and resources wasted. But I guess if he likes games and stuff? It was probly pretty fun hanging out with those guys and doing role playing.
One kinda interesting touch is the names, which seem kinda self conscious and young-screenwriterly. What kind of a name is “Verbal Kint”? And a British guy named Kobayashi? So it’s kinda fitting when some of them turn out to be phony names made up on the spot by the same guy.
I’m glad that screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar for this) has toned down all the complications over the years. I suppose VALKYRIE, JACK REACHER and ROGUE NATION all have complex plots, but they don’t seem as much like a triple back flip underwater reach around pretzel twist quadruple fakeout maneuver as this.
The parts I really like are the simple parts. Like the scene where a bunch of characters die and we don’t even see what happened to them. Keaton finds McManus and asks him what’s going on.
“The strangest thing…” McManus says. Then he collapses forward, revealing the knife in his back.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS was a small movie, opening on 42 screens, but in its third week (on 506 screens) it cracked the box office top ten. In its fifth week it moved up to #5, just below more mainstream newcomer HACKERS. It was still in the top 10 in October when SEVEN opened and introduced another famous plot twist involving Kevin Spacey.
Singer followed this up three years later with the Stephen King adaptation APT PUPIL starring Ian McKellan. But in 2000 he would make his biggest mark on pop culture by directing X-MEN. It was the first white Marvel Comics movie to really take off, setting the stage for the modern comic book movie era. It also pioneered the formula of respected indie director doing a big super hero franchise (see also Christopher Nolan).
Though USUAL SUSPECTS was not in the mode of a summer event movie, that has become Singer’s primary output. He’s done one historical drama (VALKYRIE), one failed fantasy (JACK THE GIANT SLAYER), four X-MEN and a SUPERMAN (with Spacey).
McQuarrie has also entered the arena this summer when he directed MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION. He also directed two impressive crime/action movies, WAY OF THE GUN and JACK REACHER.
Ottman continues to edit and score, including for most of Singer’s movies. He also directed URBAN LEGENDS: FINAL CUT.
SUMMER OF 1995 NOTE: MORTAL KOMBAT came out on August 18th, here is my old review of that one.