Gangster Movie Month: "The Usual Suspects" Review


Gangster Movie Month: "The Usual Suspects" Review

-- Rating: R (violence and strong language)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 1995
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Genre: Crime/Mystery/Thriller

"The Usual Suspects" is one of those films with a heavy-hitting cast, although that may be apparent only in retrospect. Released in 1995, the film features names like Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollack, and Benicio Del Toro. It's like the 1990s spewed forth the most likely actors to populate a seedy criminal thriller while ignoring kingpins like Robert De Niro, who was busy making mediocre casino and bank-heist movies anyway.

"The Usual Suspects" begins at the end of the tale, and the viewer is fed the earlier narrative through the character of Verbal Kint (Spacey). Unlike many stories that unfold in this manner, "The Usual Suspects" is able to hold onto its secrets while maintaining a strong pace and interesting plot. In fact, the cult-like status this flick has garnered over the years is probably due in part to Spacey's delivery of the narrative.

The movie begins with some shady activity gone bad; an unidentifiable man speaks with and shoots another man, and then sets fire to the ship they are on. Authorities arrive to find two survivors: Verbal Kint and a Hungarian man. The Hungarian is hurt and hospitalized; a sketch artist is sent to his room, and he begins to describe a person named Keyser Söze. The Hungarian states that Söze killed "many men."

At the same time, Verbal Kint is taken into custody and agrees to cooperate in exchange for immunity. The bulk of the movie takes place as a customs agent named Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) grills Kint on his story. Kint's story spans six weeks, and the action is played out on screen; it all begins with five criminals in a lineup. The usual criminal suspects are played by Byrne, Baldwin, Pollack, Del Toro, and Spacey. In addition to Verbal Kint, the group is made up of a corrupt police officer, a wild and angry sharp shooter, a Hispanic crime partner, and a hijacker.

The five men join forces to pull off a robbery, but the action quickly takes some puzzling turns as the merchandise they lift turns out to be drugs instead of valuable jewels. This surprise leads them to the man who set up the job, which in turn leads the group to a second job: destroying the ship featured in the first segment of the movie. At this point, the legendary Keyser Söze begins to make appearances in the action, although the viewer is never quite sure who he is.

"The Usual Suspects" is an extremely well-written film, and it won an Oscar in 1996 in the screenplay category. Kevin Spacey also won an Academy Award for his part in the film, which was classified as a supporting role. Years later, it is often Spacey's character that fans of the movie remember. Spacey won numerous other fan and critic awards for the role, and the director and writer also fared well.

Although the film is a gritty crime drama, there are some humorous moments that are funnier because of the people delivering them. During a scene where all five criminals are included in a lineup, the men cannot seem to keep a straight face. It turns out the director originally wanted the scene filmed straight, but the five professional actors cut up so badly, he finally had to use what he had. The choice turned out to be a good one, because it's moments like this that give the gritty film the personality that has carried it through almost twenty years of viewers.

Robert Di Niro and Christopher Walken were both offered roles in "The Usual Suspects," and they both turned the film down. Although either actor would have fit well within the structure and theme of the movie, it's probably good they weren't included. They were both offered the role of the customs agent; having either legendary actor face off against Spacey's Verbal Kint would have taken away from the mystery of the Keyser Söze figure, which drives much of the movie.

The winning touch for "The Usual Suspects" is a more-then-clever plot twist that almost no one sees coming. In fact, in a poll conducted by the Internet Movie Database, "The Usual Suspects" was selected as the movie with the best plot twist, even when up against films like "The Crying Game" or "The Sixth Sense."

Overall, "The Usual Suspects" is a stellar crime drama. The story is fueled by intelligent dialogue, an engaging plot, and phenomenal acting. In the end, it is the plot twist that keeps the film memorable, but even without that bit, it stands on its own. Viewers who haven't seen this 90s classic should queue it up on Netflix or make it a rental today.

Rating: 4 out of 5