Boasting petty criminal characters conceived so brilliantly they achieve near-mythological status, The Usual Suspects is known for riveting suspense and action, an intriguing plot line and a jaw- dropping twist at the end. It also features some of the most memorable lines of the 1990s: "How do you shoot the devil in the back--what if you miss?" The characters, Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fred Fenster (Benicio Del Toro), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) have real character details and cues.
The film is set in the aftermath of a ship fire that totally burns the cargo and crew. Though meek and disabled, Verbal is the only survivor to walk away from the incident unscathed. He is taken into custody and grilled by the police. Brilliantly played in a characteristic, understated style that earned Spacey an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Verbal is cleared and allowed to leave. But before he can go, agent Kujan from US Customs shows up to interrogate him. Kujan is trying to build a case against Keaton and he wants Verbal to testify in exchange for immunity. Verbal refuses, but Kujan still bullies Verbal into recounting his story of Keaton, McManus, Fenster and Hockney, leading up to the explosion on the ship.
What follows is a fantastic yarn of lies and half-truths sprinkled within the facts of the case. It is all masterfully portrayed as a series of flashbacks while Verbal and Kujan sip coffee and talk in the LA police station. The story begins six weeks earlier in New York City as Verbal and the other four criminals are brought in to stand side-by-side in a police lineup. None of them are formally charged with a crime, and there are indications Keaton has actually gone straight prior to the roundup. But before they are released, the five hatch a plan to get revenge on the corrupt NYPD and make a large sum of money in the process by robbing a police-protected jewel smuggler and leaking news of the police involvement to the press. Keaton is reluctant and must be coaxed into it with the promise that no one will be killed in the heist. He agrees and the quintet pulls off the robbery to perfection. The acting and writing take chances that pay off, with each actor fully immersing himself in his role. Del Toro creates a uniquely colorful persona in his portrayal of Fenster, Baldwin conveys a reckless abandon and lust for violence, Pollak shows steely courage and resolve, Byrne is a complex mesh of toughness with motives pulling him in all directions. Each actor is at the top of his game.
The five criminals go to Los Angeles to lay low in the aftermath of the New York heist. There, they are enticed into another robbery that is also supposed to involve no killing. Unfortunately, this LA heist goes horribly wrong. As Verbal recounts this carnage, its aftermath and the growing problems and hostility in the crew, agent Kujan receives a tip from one of his colleagues who has a survivor pulled from the water near the charred wreckage of the ship. The witness is badly burned and cannot speak English, but insists that the man responsible for the destruction of life and property on the ship is named Kaiser Soze.
Whether it is attributable to lies in Verbal's yarn or odd casting decisions, several characters in The Usual Suspects add to the film's mystique. Chief among these is the Irish Postlethwaite cast as the Japanese Kobayashi. There is a strong clue at the end that the name Kobayashi is used solely to mislead Kujan. But Kobayashi is not the only instance of a character's name failing to match his appearance. Another example is McManus' contact in LA, Redfoot, which one would expect to be the name of a Native American. But Redfoot appears to be caucasian. Again, at the end there is an indication that Verbal used Redfoot to avoid giving Kujan a real name. Strange ethnic inconsistencies crop up constantly. Kaiser Soze is said to be Turkish, possibly with a German father. These mixed-up character portraits add a layer of complexity to the plot, but one must always consider the source, Verbal Kint, and his motives.
The dynamic between Kujan and Verbal itself is pure entertainment. A kind of cat-and-mouse game, nuances are thrown into the proceedings that make it more interesting and add depth to the characters. Even the way the interrogation is filmed is unique. Verbal didn't achieve his nickname for no reason. He knows how to run his mouth and Kujan has a difficult challenge in corralling him. Underlying the interrogation is Kujan's suspicion of Keaton and his belief that Keaton manipulated Verbal. But Verbal is hard to pin down and Kujan occasionally resorts to bully tactics. But who is Kaiser Soze? Did he orchestrate the police lineup in New York, and pull all the strings ever since? Is the cargo of the ship drugs or only human cargo? Why did Verbal survive unharmed while so many others did not? Did Keaton really die, as Verbal insists, or did he slip away, as Kujan believes? Is Verbal telling the truth? Much is revealed in the final moments of the film, which wash over the viewer like an enormous wave of recognition. Snippets of dialogue from earlier in the film are montaged over the complex score, providing spine-tingling clues about exactly what part of Verbal's yarn was fact and what was fiction. The final snippet of dialogue, followed by a fortissimo string finale is especially powerful: "and like that...he was gone."
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