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When a crippled criminal survives a massacre he's brought in for questioning, then proceeds to tell the most remarkable of underworld tales.
"I'm really thirsty. When I was a kid I used to dehydrate, and my piss came out like snot. I mean, it was all thick and gross." Just a throwaway piece of dialogue from Christopher McQuarrie's otherwise quotable Oscar-winning screenplay for The Usual Suspects. Watch Bryan Singer's awesome neo-noir a second time and you might find that this seemingly extraneous information gives a big clue to the real identity of arch criminal Keyser Soze.
It's now often the case with cult films that their popularity stems from the need to subject them to the sort of examination usually reserved for the Patterson Bigfoot film. But while many films might claim that only repeat viewers will understand the storyline, The Usual Suspects really does reward those prepared to put it under the microscope a second, third or fourth time. And we're not talking about some phoney mystery here - of the sort at the heart of The Big Sleep, a story so dense not even its author Raymond Chandler could understand it. The Usual Suspects presents all the clues. It just happens to also provide more than one solution.
"Five criminals. One line-up. No coincidence." The Usual Suspects' tagline neatly summed up what seemed to be a pretty simple situation. The suspects in question include Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a copper-turned-con who some believe might hold domain over the criminal underworld, and Roger 'Verbal' Kint (Kevin Spacey), a meek crippled conman who is one of two men to survive a shoot out in an LA harbour. Brought in for questioning by customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), 'Verbal' explains the events leading up to him, Keaton and the three other cons being in LA that evening. And as he talks, Kujan becomes convinced that Kint can finger Keyser Soze, a bad guy who could even spook James Bond.
Any crime movie where the cop is played by Chazz Palminteri - one the movie world's favourite Mafiosi - is a pretty interesting proposition. Indeed, with so many of the cast being equally at home playing heroes or villains, the mystery at the heart of The Usual Suspects is treacle thick and twice as sticky. The film that introduced the wider world to Bencio Del Toro, Singer's film features career-best work from Byrne, Kevin Pollack and Steve Baldwin, three actors who might be bigger were they always as good as they are here. The film also throws some interesting curve-balls in the shape of cameos from Suzy Amis as the lawyer for whom Keaton has given up his life of crime, Giancarlo Espositio as a no-nonsense cop and an uncredited Peter Greene as the charismatic fence Redfoot. There's even a brief appearance by the late great actor-director Paul Bartel to muddy the water that little bit further.
Of course, the lion's share of the praise should go to Kevin Spacey who rightly won an Oscar albeit in the wrong category (Verbal is in no sense a supporting role) and McQuarrie who wrote the script in his early twenties while working for a law firm. As for Singer being overlooked for his contribution, it's a crime on the same scale as the one carried out in the final reel. That all three have struggled (or, in the case of McQuarrie, completely failed) to top their work here is as disappointing as it is to be expected. For had it been made 40 years ago by a genre legend like Howard Hawks , we'd be talking about The Usual Suspects as a bona fide movie milestone. That's the scale of the achievement on show here, the cinema equivalent of scaling Everest.
Anything but usual, Singer's movie is pretty damn near untouchable. Next to this, most other crime films feel petty.
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