Wednesday 21 April 2010

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Director: Bryan Singer
Stars: Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, Pete Postlethwaite and Kevin Spacey
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Of all the films of the last twenty years or so, The Usual Suspects came to me with a reputation firmly attached. While not universally lauded, as Roger Ebert slammed it ruthlessly and included it on his Most Hated List, generally it's held up as the pinnacle of neo-noir complexity with a real peach of an ending, one of the greatest endings in cinematic history. Even though it was only made fifteen years ago, it has already become a thing of legend, a reference point that can't be referenced because it all revolves around the teaser line, 'Who is Keyser Söze?' and to answer that question breaks the movie. It's an intriguing approach to a film, one perhaps not attempted at this scale since Hitchcock made Psycho and introduced the most famous twist in cinematic history. The problem is that 'legend' is probably the best way to describe The Usual Suspects, because all legends are rooted in fact but the fact somehow never lives up to the legend.

I was impressed on my first time through in 2005, not least that a nineties movie made by a major name on his first major picture with less than six million bucks to work with could be this cleverly constructed. It begins with a cold blooded murder and an explosion and quickly progresses to a flashback. Much of this film is a flashback, or a set of them that supposedly mimic the structure of Citizen Kane but really compare better to another Orson Welles film, F for Fake, because at heart it's all a combination of tall tales, diversionary tactics and cinematic trickery. At one point Verbal Kint, the character who provides the flashbacks in interviews, tells Agent Dave Kujan that 'the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.' The story by Christopher McQuarrie mostly seems to be there in an attempt to come up with a more outrageous trick than the Devil managed. Anything else seems secondary.

It all apparently revolves around the explosive incident at the beginning of the film, an incident that left 27 men dead at the San Pedro harbour, a boat on fire and $91m of dope mysteriously missing. There's lots of depth, lots of detail and lots of complexity but watching again in 2010 the suspense was mostly gone because I knew the twist. In fact what's more, knowing that so much of that detail was nonsense, it was harder to pay attention to it all second time round. 'It all started back in New York six weeks ago,' says Kint, explaining a story about a bunch of felons being hauled in to take part in a lineup, thus prompting the title. In Casablanca, Capt Renault asks his men to 'round up the usual suspects.' The line found its way to a column in Spy magazine and from there to Bryan Singer's brain where it sat waiting for this story to be spun around it. The title and the poster were the first components and everything else followed.

I found that instead of analysing the story second time through, I paid more attention to the performances, which aim to grow the depth of each character as the stories grow in complexity, all while knowing that some of these characters may not even really exist. We're introduced to the usual suspects as they're rounded up by the NYPD in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of guns. Michael McManus is sleeping, Todd Hockney is working in a garage, Fred Fenster is prancing down the street. Dean Keaton is dining out, now supposedly a reputable businessman. They're apparently all hardcore crooks, but to complete the five in the lineup in shuffles Roger Kint, known as Verbal. He's a petty conman with cerebral palsy, who seems to be totally out of his depth, but eager to join in with their future plans once they're inevitably released for lack of any evidence whatsoever. Those plans grow with the stories too.
Initially they're all crooks, all but Verbal notable ones, and they pull off no less audacious a stunt than to hijack a valuable set of emeralds from the very man bringing them into the country, while he's in the back of a cop car no less. This is an inviting concept conjured up by writer Craig McQuarrie called the New York's Finest Taxi Service, whose proprietors are corrupt cops and whose paying customers are smugglers, and he writes them into the story with panache. The way our five anti-heroes hit this taxi service is simply beautiful, not just in the way the hijack itself goes down but also through the ramifications that it's set up to trigger. Everything in this film has that much thought put into it and the ramifications are dazzling. Unfortunately the more you think about them, the more most of them fall away, making this whole story something akin to a magic trick. Once you know how it's done, the trick ceases to be fascinating.

Kevin Spacey won his first Oscar for his supporting performance as Verbal, a part that was written specifically for him, but he's the quiet one of the bunch, a little fish in very deep water, though one who seems to learn to swim suspiciously well for someone with cerebral palsy. Ever one for deep preparation, Spacey met with doctors to understand the illness and with Singer to determine how to fit it dramatically into the storyline. He even had the fingers on his left hand glued together and filed down his shoes so as to help them appear worn down by the unusual pressure warranted by the palsy. He does give a superb performance, continually making us watch him even while he's playing part of the background. Throughout the flashbacks, he's the least important character, the one who doesn't know things, the one who can't do things, the one who is something of an afterthought. This was the film that broke him into the big time.

His four colleagues in crime are played by lesser known but nonetheless superb character actors. The budget didn't stretch to stars and perhaps that's a good thing, keeping this away from being a star vehicle, which would have lessened the impact. In fact the biggest star at the time was Chazz Palminteri, riding high after his superb turn as an erudite thug in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, and his presence cemented the financing. He plays US Customs Special Agent Dave Lujan, a part turned down by bigger names like Christopher Walken, Robert de Niro and Al Pacino, who has noted that this is the film he regrets turning down the most. Like most of the rest of the cast, I've seen Palminteri before but don't know his work too well. He's a versatile talent, having exploded onto the scene with A Bronx Tale, an autobiographical stage production he wrote and performed in New York and Los Angeles, playing no less than eighteen parts. He reprised one of them in the screen adaptation by Robert de Niro.

Kevin Pollak is witty and unflinchingly tough as Todd Hockney, something that can hardly surprise given that he's an experienced stand up comedian, a trade that requires both those characteristics. Stephen Baldwin is notably unbalanced as Michael McManus, again believable as he has possibly the worst decision making ability behind John Travolta as an actor in the business, capitalising on this flirtation with success by choosing to play a lead role in Pauly Shore's Bio-Dome and moving on to no less than eight films rated lower than that at IMDb, including The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas and low budget monster movies like The Snake King, Shark in Venice and Harpies. Benicio del Toro is wildly ethnic, the most flamboyantly dynamic of the bunch as Fred Fenster. He's almost incoherent, deliberately so as he knew he was playing the most throwaway character. 'It really doesn't matter what I say,' he pointed out to Singer, 'so I can go really far out with this and really make it uncomprehensible.'
That leaves Gabriel Byrne, giving a much more dark and sinister showing as the deepest character of the bunch than he ever did in Miller's Crossing. He's Dean Keaton, a former corrupt cop who has apparently gone straight but is still being pestered by the force. While we never know for sure what really happens at the boat because every moment we see is from Verbal's perspective during one of his many flashbacks, Keaton is the focus throughout. The main reason for this is that Kujan knows Keaton well and wants to bring him down, so the stories are woven in such a way as to reinforce what he already believes. Much of the key to the story comes through one answer Verbal gives Kujan. 'To a cop the explanation is never that complicated,' he says. 'It's always simple. There's no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you're gonna find out you're right.'

There are other people in the movie, but we can never be sure which of them even exist. At least we can be sure that the five main characters exist, because the story Verbal spins of them all meeting at a line up in New York would be easily checked. Keaton's lawyer girlfriend Edie Finneran presumably exists too, because Kujan reports on her murder late in the film. Certainly Kobayashi exists because we see him for real, though that certainly isn't his name and we can be sure of precisely nothing else about him. Played by the very English Pete Postlethwaite, the character as conjured up in Verbal's flashbacks is an Anglo-Japanese lawyer with utter confidence in his master. Always someone to watch, whether he's appearing in Alien³, The Last of the Mohicans or In the Name of the Father, he's a joy to watch here and he provides us with another memorably strange accent to rank up there with that of Hugo Weaving in The Matrix.

And to the finale. The way in which the whole thing wraps up is very clever indeed, in keeping with the rest of the plot which is complex but never confusing. However it's far from a complete surprise, even first time through. I worked out the twist before it came and that's relatively unusual for me. It doesn't matter how many episodes of CSI I watch, my guesses as to who did what are still usually wrong. Here I was right, and I felt a little let down because I wasn't as surprised as I was expecting to be. There's another film that always comes to mind when I think about how clever The Usual Suspects was. It also features Kevin Spacey, as well as a clever and complex plot and a stunning twist ending. Now I've seen both more than once, I know that I far prefer Se7en, not least because as inevitable as its ending was, I didn't work it out ahead of time, and partly because as great as Spacey is here he's even better still in Se7en.

As to a legacy, The Usual Suspects seems to be holding its own. Ebert is a holdout but most critics rank the film highly and the public hold it even higher. Over the six years since I grabbed the IMDb Top 250 List to work through, it's only dropped a small way from 18th to 21st, something surprising for a recent film where the trend suggests high initial placement followed by a sharp dropoff. In comparison, the three Lord of the Rings movies were all in the top ten in 2004 but have now all dropped out, The Two Towers as far down as 29th. The Dark Knight has dropped from 2nd to 10th in a mere two years. Yet 21st place leaves this film ahead of Psycho, Citizen Kane and Dr Strangelove and it simply isn't worthy of that company. I feel that the film may well keep a solid place in people's affection as the years pass, but I don't believe it will or should keep such a high ranking in the Top 250 as this ongoing.

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