Movie Review: "The Usual Suspects"
Rating: R (violence and a substantial amount of strong language)
Length: 106 minutes
Release Date: August 16, 1995
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Stars: 4 out of 5
The opening frames of "The Usual Suspects" begin with a lineup of the usual suspects—ex-cop Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) and his partner-in-crime Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), hardware man Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), psychotic gunman Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), and con man Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), who seems a little out of place among the others who make up this motley crew. Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a US Customs agent, has gathered them together to try and get one of them to confess to the hijacking of a large gun shipment. As they are thrown together in a holding cell to await questioning, the men formulate a plan to pull off a jewel heist, provided they get out of jail without Kujan charging them for anything.
Through flashbacks, it is revealed that the heist went off without a hitch, which emboldens the cons to plan another job that involves millions of dollars' worth of cocaine. This heist, however, goes horribly wrong, which brings Verbal back into Kujan's crosshairs. The impatient agent questions Verbal, pressing him to confess what happened during the cocaine heist, which left several people dead, including an informant. Verbal begins spinning tales with a few details that seem pretty unbelievable. He is clearly lying about some of the events, but Kujan and his partner have a hard time figuring out what is real and what is a figment of Verbal's fearful imagination.
One of the tales is about a master criminal named Keyser Soze, a man so secretive that nobody even knows where he is from or how he came to become so powerful. He may be mysterious, but Soze strikes fear in the hearts of all criminals because nobody who meets him ever lives to describe him to others. Kujan has never heard of Soze, but the shadowy gangster is now on his radar because he has nobody else who he can charge with the death of his informant. Eventually, new information about Soze comes to light that will change the course of the entire investigation with a twist that few will see coming.
Spacey has long been known as a great dramatic actor, although he occasionally dabbles in comedy with equal success. Before "The Usual Suspects", he was probably best known for supporting roles in films such as "The Ref" and "Glengarry Glenn Ross". Even in this film, he is only third on the billing, but make no mistake—Spacey is the standout star of this large ensemble cast. Although his part seems like a fairly small and unflashy role, Verbal's importance to the larger narrative slowly grows right up to the surprise ending. It is not until the end that Verbal's true part in the plot is really understood and Spacey is allowed to truly shine. This is his movie from start to finish, even if the audience is not allowed to realize this until right before the end credits.
Just because it's Spacey's film doesn't mean that all of the other actors are not spectacular in their own roles. Byrne is sympathetic as a criminal who wishes to leave his past behind and start a new life, and Baldwin gives the performance of his career. Del Toro is also hilarious as the fairly unintelligible Fred Fenster in what turned out to be his breakout role, but even with this stellar cast, the other true star of the film is screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote a script full of twists, turns, and excellent character development. The script is especially remarkable considering it was only his second feature-length movie script, and it displays a talent far beyond that suggested by his formal experience. Both McQuarrie and Spacey were later rewarded for their work with well-deserved Oscar wins that helped them earn work on bigger projects.
The surprise ending of "The Usual Suspects" is the stuff of legend, and a big reason why the film succeeded as well as it did. In its opening weekend, the film only placed fifth in revenue, behind films such as "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar," and "Clockers". Steady word of mouth recommendations from those who saw it on opening weekend built buzz around the film, and it eventually became a hit. Some of the praise for this has to go to director Bryan Singer who borrowed from the style of old film noir masterpieces and twisted the genre with his own modern sensibility to make a film that feels completely fresh with a shocking ending. It's not often that modern moviegoers will feel genuinely shocked, but they will at the end of "The Usual Suspects."