With all of the critical acclaim and awards “The Usual Suspects” has garnered over the years, it’s hard to believe who was behind the magic. Despite the controversies surrounding the director and his hit and miss filmography, the neo-noir crime thriller was a massive breakout for the unknown filmmaker. The same can be for the writer, who has since established a proven track record of success. Combined with a stellar cast, you get one of the best crime thrillers of the 90s. The film even has its own “Shamalan Twist,” done years before the moniker was ever given. “The Usual Suspects” is a terrific crime thriller that never loses its fun even if you know the ending.
Told through flashbacks and narration of disabled conman Verbal Kint (controversial actor Kevin Spacey), hard nosed agent David Kujan (Chaz Palminteri) tries to get to the bottom of a heist gone wrong at the Port of Los Angeles. With only two survivors from the massacre, Kujan must separate fact from fiction as Kint maintains his story that criminal myth Keyser Soze is behind it all. Kujan must uncover the lies and get to the bottom of what happened before Kint posts bail and walks free.
“The Usual Suspects” is a unique crime drama that doesn’t crack under the weight of its twist ending. Though the comparison was made to M. Night Shamalan, they are not the same. Many of Shamalan’s films tend to lose their appeal once the twist is revealed, but “The Usual Suspects” stands on its merits of great storytelling regardless of its conclusion. Much of the films success can be attributed to its outstanding cast and performances. Like most films that start out as risks and turn into financial and critical successes, the cast coming together for “The Usual Suspects” is one of those lightening in a bottle occurrences.
The ragtag group of criminals include a young unintelligible Benicio Del Toro, a snarky Kevin Pollack, an over the top short fused Stephen Baldwin, and of course the always commanding Gabriel Byrne. Adding Spacey to the mix, and these usual suspects create onscreen magic together. Spacey even won an Academy Award for Best Support Actor for his performance. Even Palmnteri is great here, and filmed his entire performance in one week due to his busy schedule. This is incredible to note considering the banter between Kint and Kujan are some of the true highlights of the film.
Actors are often only as good as the script allows them to be, with exceptions of those that rise above the poorly written pages. Luckily, the star studded cast is given a terrific script, penned by Christopher McQuarrie. Surprisingly, “The Usual Suspects” was only his second Hollywood film, and it won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. He would go on to pen “Edge of Tomorrow,” multiple Mission Impossible films (the really good ones), and an uncredited punch up for “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” among others. Though McQuarrie isn’t above a bad script here and there (2017’s “The Mummy” reboot), his hits far outweigh his missteps, and “The Usual Suspects” ranks among one of his best.
McQuarrie’s script manages to capture the brilliance of Tarantino’s non linear storytelling without the bravado and violence while also avoiding the pitfalls of being too clever. While some critics would disagree, “The Usual Suspects” is written with purpose despite its constant misdirection and numerous red herrings. As soon as the twist is revealed, you find yourself playing the film back in your mind from start to finish, looking for all the clues you might have missed. Even though you may have missed many or none, the payoff is still satisfying. As Kujan drops his coffee mug, the viewers are also piecing it together with him, making it an immersive and masterful reveal. Most films with this kind of twist don’t have McQuarrie’s skilled penmanship, making “The Usual Suspects” a unique stand out among crime thrillers.
Lastly, Bryan Singer proves that when he is given the right tools, he is a very skilled director. Controversies aside, his ability to bring the pages to life and draw out some great performances from his cast cannot be overlooked. “The Usual Suspects” by its very nature is a tough film to do well for even the most accomplished of directors. And yet, Singer seems to have the whole picture in his mind, carefully putting the pieces together one by one with restraint and purpose.
There is something to be said of directors forced to work with small budgets that brings out the best in them. “The Usual Suspects” was made on a meager $6 million budget, and Singer makes the most of every dollar. The entire film was shot in just 35 days, and was filmed on location in Los Angeles and New York. Furthermore, Singer seems to be aware of the talent his cast brings to the table, allowing them significant freedom with their characters while still adhering to McQuarrie’s script.
The famous line up scene is a prime example of this. It is the first time all of the main cast are onscreen together, and the actors were given the chance to improvise their responses to fed questions. The laughter from the actors is real, as they were incapable of keeping it together. Each performer constantly tried to one up the other, resulting multiple failed takes. Instead of forcing the scene to be exactly as it was written, Singer smartly chose to keep what had been filmed and edit the failed takes together. By doing son, he injects the perfect amount of humor into the film and allows his actors to create one of the more memorable scenes from the film.
The combination of a terrific cast, a strong script, and a keen director make “The Usual Suspects” one of the best crime thrillers in the last 25 years. It ranks among one of my personal favorites, and never loses its enjoyment with each rewatch. It is filled with iconic scenes and quotes, many of which have been parodied and/or copied in countless films since.
“The Usual Suspects” is a great film, and regardless of how many times you’ve seen it, will always leave you asking who is Keyser Soze?