Wednesday 1 November 2023

Prime Time: The Usual Suspects (1995)

An astonishingly accomplished second film from director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie, who had previously worked together on their debut, Public Access, The Usual Suspects holds up as well today as it did when it was first released. Almost.

The story concerns five criminals who end up brought together by the police during an investigation. They are Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Hockney (Kevin Pollak), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), and Verbal (Kevin Spacey), and all five end up working together on a job that seems quite simple and profitable. Things soon become more complicated, however, when they are all informed that they have unwittingly crossed paths with a major criminal figure known as Keyser Söze. They now owe Söze, and he has a big job planned for them. This is all told to the viewer through flashbacks, with us hearing the tale as Verbal tells it to a tenacious cop named Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). What starts off as the investigation of a heist gone wrong soon turns into a determined quest to uncover the real identity of Keyser Söze.

There's still a LOT here to enjoy, if you're a film fan or a noir fan, but rewatching The Usual Suspects is a way to savour many little details (mainly the nuances in the great performances from the ensemble cast) and pick apart a number of threads that don't seem to make sense. McQuarrie's script puts the emphasis on cool ahead of believability, but that's not a terrible thing when the dialogue is as crackling with energy as this is.

Singer directs with an assured hand, but he has such great source material to work with. The script is matched by the cast, and everything is lifted up by the editing and score from John Ottman. As much as I have enjoyed many films from Singer, he helps himself a lot by often combining the best cast with a good script (and we've subsequently seen the messy result when one of those elements isn't as strong as it could be).

Spacey is excellent as the figure at the centre of the spiderwebbing plot, a man forced into telling a tale to authorities that he hopes to use to avoid major jail time. Keaton lends weight to the central motley crew, the most serious figure forced to work alongside a group of skilled crooks who are more likely to land themselves in hot water than a big payday, and Pollak, Baldwin, and Del Toro are all excellent, with the latter having particular fun as he delivers his lines as unintelligibly as possible. Palminteri is enjoyably stern and tenacious, the cop probing even further as he feels himself getting increasingly closer to the full truth of the situation, and there are fun turns from Dan Hedaya, Peter Greene, Giancarlo Esposito, and Pete Postlethwaite, as well as one or two others (Suzy Amis is one of the few female characters, but she's given very little to work with).

Very rewatchable, and a lot of fun from start to finish, this remains a pretty great film. It just loses some power when you know what's coming, and when you can some time mulling over some of the more improbable plotting. Still highly recommended though, and certainly one that you need to watch if you've somehow not yet got around to it.


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  1. One of the all time great endings in movie history! I suppose some of the improbability could be from the unreliable narrator in Verbal. It's too bad Singer and Spacey have had personal issues come up in the last decade, though those might explain why women were pretty underused in this movie.