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20th Aug 2015

The Usual Suspects: A modern masterpiece that flips you for real…

Nooruddean Choudry

“I wanna know why 27 men died on that pier for what looks to be $91 million worth of dope that wasn’t there. And above all, I want to be sure Dean Keaton’s dead…”

The premise is beautifully simple: Five notorious felons meet in a police line-up and plan a heist. It goes fatally wrong and the cops manage to reprimand the weakest of the group to question him about what went down.

Upon that skeleton plot is piled layers of intrigue, deceit, menace and subterfuge to create a neo-noir classic. The Usual Suspects came out twenty years ago this week, yet it continues to hover just below the public consciousness as an achingly cool modern masterpiece.

There is something fitting about the fact that it remains a cult classic. For a film so critically-acclaimed and crammed with enigmatic stars, it doesn’t tend to jump immediately to mind when listing favourite flicks. It is always the film thats mention is followed by: ‘Oh s**t, of course yeah…’

At its heart, the Usual Suspects is a whodunnit, or more aptly, as whoishe? It very quickly becomes apparent that a giant unseen presence is the real star of the piece: Keyser Söze, the devil incarnate who sends hard men with dangerous skills into a spiral of paranoid fear.

That said, the film is so much more. Most such mysteries don’t warrant repeat viewing; they are one-trick ponies, even if the trick is expertly executed. What a then 28-year-old Bryan Singer managed to do is weave together a story so dense and clever that it demands multiple plays.

The cast is phenomenal, both in talent and modern-day notoriety. It reads like a Oscar nomination long-list: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio del Toro, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak, Chazz Palminteri, Pete Postlethwaite…I mean Pete Postlethwaite, FFS – such is the roll call you forget he’s in it.

It is an unrivalled ensemble that meshes together perfectly. There was a point at which Al Pacino was up for the part of Special Agent Dave Kujan – but it wouldn’t have worked. Palminteri nailed the angry, deluded, empathetic nuances of Kujan’s character that demanded a underplayed subtlety.

Byrne was a reluctant member of the cast who plays a reluctant member of the gang; Baldwin is a bit of a dickhead playing a bit of a dickhead; Pollak is a real-life smart-arse; Del Toro an enigmatic scene-stealer…and then there’s the quite sublime Kevin Spacey.

His performance is a tour de force and the dark soul of the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone delivering such a deliciously symbiotic rendering. Spacey manages to be at once both absolutely feeble and broodingly hard; sweetly naive and yet unnervingly creepy.

In some ways his depiction of Verbal Kint is a twisted precursor to Frank Underwood. There’s the same disarming affability with undertones of sardonic insolence. He is the narrator, and therefore you go with him, but it is often with a foreboding reluctance.

But that’s the genius of the film. Never does it insult your intelligence like so many other movies do. There are breadcrumbs of course, but it doesn’t slap you in the chops and shout: THIS IS IMPORTANT. Instead the information washes over you, and hopefully the key bits stick.

The reason why the Usual Suspects endures as a cult favourite is because it doesn’t try to impress, it just does. There are guns, explosions and dramatic set-pieces, and yet for the most part it is slow-paced and very grown-up filmmaking. With all due respect to another stone-cold classic of the era, it’s no Reservoir Dogs.

It is twenty years since the film was made and yet it hasn’t aged a day. Apart from a few tell tale signs like a flip phone here and a fax machine there, it could belong to any era. Perhaps it’s time to pull it from your shelf, dust off the DVD cover, and remind yourself why it blew your mind in the first place.