The Good: Character, Acting, Storytelling, Plot, EVERYTHING!
The Bad: None, this is a perfect film.
The Basics: Clever, dark and perfectly assembled, The Usual Suspects pits a gang of criminals against other criminals and the law when no one will let their past crimes lay.
There's nothing to sigh about with The Usual Suspects presented on DVD in a nice Special Edition with commentary tracks and a couple of deleted scenes. Underrated in the theaters, The Usual Suspects arguably launched the film career of actor Kevin Spacey and put him front and center on Hollywood's map (he had done films before this one, but did not get the recognition that his role here brought him). As well, it gave Bryan Singer the directoral success he needed to go onto bigger projects (like X-Men reviewed here!).
One night on a pier in Los Angeles, a man is killed and a boat is blown up and the initial assumption is that the carnage is drug-related. The only people alive from the adventure are a crippled man named Verbal Kint and a half-charred man who is fished out of the harbor, almost dead. As the charred victim demands immunity and professes he has something to put on the table, Kint is brought before US Customs interrogator Dave Kujan. Kujan is obsessed with Dean Keaton, a criminal who has always escaped prosecution for his crimes.
So, Verbal tells him the story of how he, Keaton and three other criminals came to be near the boat that fateful night . . .
The Usual Suspects is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. The story that Verbal tells is an intriguing one and as he lays out a plot featuring criminals who are continually harassed by law enforcement, he paints a picture that puts the viewer on the side of a pack of ruthless criminals. Verbal is sympathetic because he does not appear to fit in with the psychopathic McManus, the dark and sarcastic Hockney, the slick Fenster or the apparently-reformed Keaton. And as the viewer watched Keaton take a beating in New York City when a truck of weapons gets robbed, the viewer is instantly empathetic.
It takes a lot to get an audience to empathize with characters who casually sink bullets into the skulls of their adversaries, but writer Christopher McQuarrie and director Bryan Singer succeed because of how they do it. The narrative flow of Verbal telling how the police simply rounded up five felons for a line-up and how those criminals understood their debt to society would never be paid makes the alliance they form seem not only sensible, but just.
And things do not go smoothly for the quintet, which adds a layer of realism to the whole venture that brings the viewer deeper in. The personalities of the characters clash. Keaton is cold, rational and essentially a businessman, while McManus is a fiery-eyed killer who seems to take joy in the prospect of simply eliminating his obstacles. And Kint plays the story surprisingly close to the vest, especially as the stakes in the story get escalated to how the group ended up on the pier where the movie begins.
What makes The Usual Suspects perfect outside it's narrative execution of an excellent idea with distinct and believable characters, is the acting. There is not a single bad performance in The Usual Suspects. Every frame, the entire 106 minutes, the acting is solid and right on. Supporting actors like Dan Hedaya (Sgt. Rabin), Suzy Amis (Edie Finneran), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer), Benicio Del Toro (Fenster), and the brilliantly cool Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi) add strong support to a cast that is solid and does not need more heft.
Part of the reason the ensemble succeeds is because of the sarcasm that Kevin Pollak brings to Todd Hockney. Long before Pollack was doing schtick in prosthetics in The Whole Ten Yards (reviewed here!), he was dangerous and mean as Hockney in The Usual Suspects. Having seen a lot of his standup routines, this is an acting stretch for the comic and he does it quite well. Similarly, Stephen Baldwin provides nothing but cold menace as McManus. Broody and dangerous, Baldwin emotes a quiet seething that is expertly portrayed to make his character seem completely on edge the whole movie.
Chazz Palminteri is wonderful as interrogator Dave Kujan. Kujan has to be calculating, educated and keep calm and Palminteri evokes the confidence in the character that is befitting his role. Quite simply, he makes the viewer believe without question that he is a Customs agent and an expert interrogator. Similarly, Gabriel Byrne does wonderfully as Dean Keaton, making the viewer believe that he is reformed. Byrne screws his face up perfectly to present the character as conflicted and makes the transition from criminal to businessman a smooth, believable one.
But it's Kevin Spacey who earns his pay and position and awards for his place as Verbal Kint. Spacey limps through the movie selling the viewer on his character's ailment so that the viewer never questions it. That's the power of great acting. And much of Spacey's role it to be engaging while simply sitting in front of the camera telling a story. And he succeeds. Completely.
This is the essential crime movie which makes the criminals the heroes when they are put in a situation where their past wrongs continually come back to haunt them. It is a must see for anyone who loves great drama. But be prepared to want to see it again. A lot.
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© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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