The Usual Suspects (1995)    3 Stars

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist”

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri

Synopsis: A sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which begin when five criminals meet at a seemingly random police lineup.

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WARNING! – This review contains SPOILERS from the outset!

The Usual Suspects is something of a con job when you think about it; it’s story is narrated by one Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey — L. A. Confidential, American Beauty), a small-time criminal suffering from cerebral palsy whose interrogation at the hands of Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chaz Palminteri) serves as the source of a series of flashbacks which conclude with the fiery explosion aboard a ship in San Pedro, California that opens the film. Not only is Kint a career criminal, he’s also actually an elusive master criminal whose true identity is shrouded in mystery, so little of what we see on-screen can be taken at face value. Kint makes it up as he goes along, piecing together a convoluted tale of criminal treachery, using scraps of information on an over-filled bulletin board in front of him to provide the names of the characters that populate his fabrication. What is truth and what is fiction? Only Keyser Soze knows…

The Usual Suspects are a quintet of small time hoods thrown together in a police holding cell on trumped up charges. Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne — Ghost Ship, Assault on Precinct 13) is a former corrupt cop turned criminal who is now trying to go straight, Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin – Posse) is an expert marksman working in partnership with Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro – Snatch). Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak – Avalon) is a career hijacker, and Kint a small-time con man. The men form an unlikely alliance to get revenge on the police department – who ferry smugglers around the city in return for a cut of the proceeds — and are then enticed into carrying out a further robbery by McManus’s fence. What the men don’t realise, however, is that they are being set up by a crooked lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwate — Inception, Killing Bono) into carrying out a raid on a ship carrying an illicit load of cocaine.

Christopher McQuarrie’s story appears a little convoluted at times, for what is essentially a straightforward tale of corruption and treachery but, paradoxically, it also dispenses with most extraneous material in order to tell its story in an admirably forthright fashion. Without a doubt, Soze is too cryptic a character to exist convincingly beyond the confines of a 1920s movie serial, and his plot to place Keaton and company aboard the ship for his own covert reasons seems unnecessarily complicated and risky, but using Kint as a mouthpiece goes some way towards tempering the story’s more fantastic elements.

The performances are all strong, but Spacey’s is the one to watch. Not because he out-acts his fellow cast members particularly, but simply because the role — which appears so straightforward on first viewing — is actually anything but. Here’s an actor playing one type of character who has disguised himself as another, diametrically opposed character, to such a degree that he is able to pull the wool over the eyes not only of his partners in crime, but experienced police interrogators as well. It’s a role within a role, which is something that requires a lot of nerve on both the part of writer and actor to pull off convincingly.

The Usual Suspects is, without doubt a superior movie which works exceedingly well within the somewhat unrealistic world in which it places itself. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the fact that it manages to seduce the audience into willingly suspending its disbelief while the story unfolds. Ultimately, that might also prove to be its greatest weakness, as repeated viewings gradually rub away that fragile veneer of reality to expose a large degree of manipulative artifice.

(Reviewed 23rd November 2012)