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Usual Suspects, The

Reviewed By Mrs. Norman Maine
Posted 12/18/04 10:22:56

"An exquisite trick puzzle of a film"
5 stars (Awesome)

Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie established themselves as major talents with this low budget, but carefully made caper thriller that turns out to be a completely different film than what you think you've been watching.

ROUND UP

I thought I might have a quiet weekend. Norman is still in San Diego, on the set of Waterworld II and Patrick, the cat, is visiting relatives in Cleveland leaving me alone and at peace in Chateau Maine, my luxurious mansion, high in the hills above Hollywood. I had just settled down with my brunch Mimosa and a plate of Rice Krispie squares when the phone rang. It was Madame Rose, my publicist, bearing ill news. Mr. Carducci, the manager of the factory producing my VickiWear line of clothing is having some legal problems and he and his family might have difficulty meeting the demand generated by my new Virtually Vicki infomercial.

Apparently the imported Indonesian seamstresses have not been paid their promised $1.98 an hour for several weeks and a few troublemakers in the group staged a protest at the Paramus mall Pic-n-Save, a local boutique where my fine clothes are sold. This has led to some sort of investigation by the New Jersey Department of Labor and there may be some unpleasant news stories. I instructed Madame Rose to head from her cushy Manhattan offices to Paramus post haste and to liberally hand out coupons for free Tasty-Freeze frozen yogurt to the girls. She thought she might need some help and asked if I’d mind her taking Frank Gifford along as extra muscle; apparently he has some experience in this area. As long as there is adequate media coverage, she can take the entire payroll of Live with Regis and Kathy Lee. No one will be able to say that Mrs. Norman Maine doesn't take care of the employees that make her clothing line. Madame Rose said she could, at the very least, have someone there from The Weekly World News.

Legal affairs being somewhat on my mind, I decided to view a film this afternoon that takes a look at the American legal system. I first thought about Legal Eagles or The Pelican Brief but decided that lawyers and birds are not necessarily the best combination. I settled, instead, upon director Bryan Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie's minor masterpiece from 1995, The Usual Suspects. Singer and McQuarrie, high school friends from New Jersey, made quite a splash with this tale of cops and robbers in which everything is straightforward and nothing is as it seems. Both received heaps of accolades and McQuarrie carried home an Oscar for best original screenplay.

The Usual Suspects is the story of a group of five low life criminals from New York. They seem to accidentally meet at a line-up one night after they're individually rounded up and brought in for questioning about the hijacking of a shipment of gun parts. The five are McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a tattooed hot dogger of a petty criminal; his buddy Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) who slurs his words into a practically ununderstandable dialect; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a guy who knows his weapons; Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) a cop gone bad who's trying to go straight with the aid of his lawyer girlfriend (Suzy Amis); and Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), a small time con man with a limp, a crooked arm and a tendency to talk too much.

The film is cleverly constructed, starting at the end of the caper in which these five are involved - an attempt to steal tens of millions of dollars off a boat in San Pedro harbor in what looks like a drug deal gone bad. The story of how the five get together and become enmeshed in a web of intrigue surrounding a mysterious criminal mastermind, Keyser Soze, is intercut with the interrogation of Kint, the only one of the five to be captured after the crime goes sour. Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), has been chasing Keaton and is sure he and Soze must be connected - he questions Kint together with Jeff Rabin of the LAPD (Dan Hedaya) and an FBI agent (Giancarlo Esposito). Kint's relaying of the story during the hours prior to his posting bail and the attempts by the cops to get at the truth through other means make up the spine of the film.

The plot is a Chinese puzzle box of a thriller. Everything you think you know is turned around by subsequent events, including a brilliant finale which calls the whole story of the film into question. For the film to work, the character of Kint, who supplies the majority of the exposition and narration, must draw in the audience as he draws in the listening cops. Kevin Spacey does so brilliantly and won a well deserved supporting actor Oscar. The true nature of his performance cannot be seen on a first viewing of the film; only after all the secrets have been revealed is it possible to see all the subtleties in mannerisms and delivery that make Kint a compelling and absolutely believable character. McQuarrie's screenplay leaves the audience guessing but wraps up the loose ends neatly. He has a splendid ear for dialog and a gift for story construction. Not everyone can start a thriller at the end and still make it a thriller.

Director Singer keeps the action clear and helps most of the cast to career best performances. Stephen Baldwin has never been so good in a film since, and this was the film that put Benicio Del Toro on the map. His Fenster is a bizarre, languid collection of tics which still come across as human. You can believe all of these guys as people and as criminals. If there is a weak link, it's Gabriel Byrne who overdoes the soulful Irish eyes just a tad and who could be just a bit more physically menacing in some scenes. There are also memorable bits from Paul Bartel as a jewel smuggler (not mugging for once) and Peter Greene as a fence. Pete Postlethwaite also appears as a mysterious representative of Keyser Soze. His make-up and his accent seem a bit out of place at first, but when all is explained, it makes sense.

This is a great film for thinking adults. It will leave you replaying the plot, deconstructing the action, and anxious to see it again. And, unlike most other thrillers, knowing the dénouement doesn't spoil it. You can watch it over and over if, for no other reason, to see how cleverly each little bit is set up and how neatly the whole piece hangs together.

Originally Written 7/22/2001
Revised 6/12/2003

Police line up. Z Galerie furnished apartment. Stolen emeralds. Corrupt cops. Overcooked corpses. Smoking ship. Asian temple bell. Red pool table. Elevator assassinations. Smashed porcelain coffee mug. Quartet brand bulletin board.

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