The Usual Suspects

Released:  1995

Cast:  Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Spacey, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite

Oscar Wins:  Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey), Best Original Screenplay (Christopher McQuarrie)

SUMMARY:  In San Pedro Bay, a cargo ship is set on fire after a gunfight between two groups of men.  There are only two survivors:  a Hungarian man named Arkos Kovaz, and an American named Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey).  Both men are known criminals; Kovaz was severely burned in the fire, but Kint escaped unharmed, despite the fact that he has a physical handicap.  The ship is rumored to have contained cocaine, so FBI agents soon arrive to investigate, as do Customs agents.  Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) comes to interrogate Kint, who is also believe to be mentally handicapped; FBI agent Jack Baer goes to the hospital to attempt to question Kovaz.  It soon becomes clear that Kujan is also seeking revenge against Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), one of the men killed in the fire — Keaton had once been a corrupt police officer.  At the hospital, Baer is stunned when Kovaz suddenly starts yelling about ‘Keyser Soze’, a somewhat mythical crime figure.  Kint fills Kujan in:  Soze got into crime after a Hungarian gang held his family hostage.  He killed his own family and the gang, then disappeared.  However, he maintains a powerful empire through agents, who usually don’t know who they’re working for.  Baer brings in an artist and interpreter, to try to get a description of Soze; at the same time, Kujan interrogates Kint.  The story begins six weeks earlier, when Kint and four other men were brought in to be part of a police lineup.  The men, including Keaton, Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), his partner Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) are all known criminals, and are suspected of hijacking a truck full of gun parts.  McManus is irate at being accused of this crime, and in the holding cell, gets the others to agree to a job as revenge.  Working together, all five stop a smuggler and his corrupt police escort, take the goods, and reveal the corruption to the press.  They then travel to Los Angeles to meet a fence McManus uses, Redfoot.  Redfoot offers the group another job, which they accept.  The group believes they will be seizing smuggled jewels, but find out that the cargo is actually heroin.  McManus is furious, and confronts Redfoot, who reveals that he learned of the job from a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite).

Before long, the five men are themselves approached by Kobayashi, who turns out to be Soze’s lawyer and right-hand man.  Kobayashi tells the men that they have each stolen from Soze, without realizing it (including the gun truck hijacking, which turned out to be Hockney); he also has every detail of their criminal and personal lives.  Kobayashi tells the men that Soze has a job for them:  if they accept and complete it, he will forget their slights against him; if they decline, he will kill them and their friends.  The job comes with another incentive:  Soze wants the men to destroy a cocaine shipment (from Argentinians to Hungarians) worth $91 million — and they get to keep the money if they can recover it.  All five men think about the offer that night, and Fenster ultimately takes off.  The other four find his body in a deserted location revealed by Kobayashi.  They decide to take revenge (and demonstrate their own power) by killing Kobayashi, and attempt to do so by infiltrating his office.  However, inside Kobayashi’s office is Keaton’s girlfriend, lawyer Edie Finneran, who will be killed if the men don’t do the job; in fact, Kobayashi threatens to kill a specific family member of each of the men if they do not accept.  The men realize that although the job is extremely dangerous, they have no choice but to try it.  At the dock, Keaton tells Kint to remain behind; if the plan goes bad, Keaton instructs him to take the money and find Edie.  Keaton, McManus and Hockney manage to kill all of the Argentinian and Hungarian guards, but cannot find any cocaine on the ship.  There is another man locked in a small room on the ship, but the men do not find him.  Instead, this man is located — and killed — by a mysterious, unseen man, who ultimately kills McManus, Hockney, and (in sight of Kint) Keaton, then sets the boat on fire.  Based on his information, Kint assumes that this mysterious assassin is Keyser Soze.  This concludes his story, but Kujan is set on implicating Keaton, and reveals facts that he believe prove Keaton was working for Soze.  Kint confesses that everything was Keaton’s plan, and is then allowed to leave on bond.  As he leaves, Kujan sits in the interrogation room, looking at a bulletin board.  Suddenly, he begins to recognize names on the board, like Redfoot, Kobayashi, and Skokie, Illinois from Kint’s story, and realizes that the whole thing was a fake.  At about the same time, Baer finally gets a completed sketch of Soze from Kovaz — and it is a clear picture of Verbal Kint.  Kujan tries to find Kint outside the police station, but he is too late to stop him from getting into a car driven by “Kobayashi”.

MY TAKE:  Obviously, this movie is a little confusing, but it’s not as bad as it sounds.  The original few jobs are not important plot points; they just put the men in contact with Kobayashi.  Keyser Soze basically blackmails the men into the cocaine job; when they try to buck him, they find out that he is always one step ahead.  Ultimately, the men take over the ship, but are killed by a mystery assassin, which gives the impression that Soze simply used the job to get the men in an enclosed location, where he could kill them.  Kujan believes that Keaton is actually working for Soze, and used the job to kill an informant who could identify Soze (the man locked in the room on the ship).  Then comes the epic plot twist:  the whole story was made up — and meek, handicapped Verbal Kint is Keyser Soze, who is not really handicapped at all.  Literally, the first time I watched this I think I fell on the floor when Kevin Spacey started walking normally.  When you start to think about it, it’s confusing — was the whole story really made up, or did Kint just change the names of people?  If it was a big fib, how did the men really meet?  Basically, you spend the hour after watching the movie thinking about it and trying to figure it out.  While it’s a little frustrating, I think this is also part of what makes the movie good — it’s got a plot twist you don’t see coming, and a story that leaves you thinking.  Plus, Kevin Spacey is great at playing nut jobs.

Fun fact:  Early in the movie, when the men are brought in for the police lineup, they’re each supposed to step forward and read a given line.  However, Stephen Baldwin’s antics as he read the line (the first to do so) kept cracking the others up.  This was not the way the scene was supposed to go, but when the actors spent a whole day filming the scene, without one serious take, the director decided to use of the comedic takes.  I think it actually works better, because it makes it appear as though the men think the accusations are ridiculous, which gives credence to McManus’s later anger in the holding cell that sets things in motion.

RATING:  Excellent.

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