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This movie won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey) and Original Screenplay.

‘The Usual Suspects’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 18, 1995

Let your concentration flag for an instant during Bryan Singer's deliciously intricate "The Usual Suspects," and you're lost forever. Set in a demimonde of criminal outsiders and con artists, this thriller is like a game of life-and-death chess, with quick double-crosses and wild gambits.

The plot moves so fast early on—and shifts back and forth between past and present—that keeping up is like trying to board a train at full speed. The specific crime in question involves $91 million in cocaine, an enigmatic lawyer and a boatload of corpses found burned beyond recognition on a California dock.

But the matter is not nearly as simple as that.

The seeds for the caper were planted six weeks before the movie begins, when the cops rounded up a group of the so-called usual suspects for a lineup. Forget the reason, but five of New York's most notorious con men were brought together in one place.

The result of their encounter is a job, which leads to another job, which results, finally, in the death of an informant and the dead bodies on the dock.

According to Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey)—a small-time hustler with a shriveled arm and leg who is the only member of the gang to survive the fire—the figure behind the whole scheme was one Keyser Soze, a legendary criminal who may or may not exist but whose name strikes fear in all who hear it.

The main relationship in the film—and the primary battle of wits—is between Kint and U.S. Customs Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), who grills the seemingly slow-witted little man at the station house. Bumming cigarettes and coffee, Kint spills the whole yarn of how Soze blackmailed the gang into working for him.

Not since Sherlock Holmes's Professor Moriarty has there been a evil genius like Keyser Soze. Manipulating the action from a distance, Soze is a marionette master with influence that reaches deep into the police and criminal establishments. Even though we never actually lay eyes on him—at least not until the very end—he dominates the movie the way "Rosebud" dominates "Citizen Kane."

But Kujan isn't buying Kint's rap about Soze. He believes that crooked ex-cop Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) was the man behind the plan. And no matter how hard Kujan hammers away at his subject, he can't seem to shake him from his story.

It's unbelievably complicated, but in a way that drags you deeper in. Still, just because so many of the film's satisfactions are cerebral, it doesn't mean that there's nothing happening on screen. "The Usual Suspects" is an old-fashioned mystery trap; it suckers you into buying a premise and then springs the trap on you.

The movie boasts a wealth of rich character performances. As Kint, Spacey isn't playing his usual sinister wise guy; he's a dope and a weakling. And yet, Spacey lets us in on the sly intelligence working behind Kint's ineffectual pose.

In contrast, Byrne's Keaton is a powerhouse. Smoky and brooding, Keaton wants to bury his dark past and establish a legitimate life with his lawyer girlfriend (Suzy Amis). But when it becomes clear that his only alternative is to play along, he turns his attention to pulling off the job with merciless professionalism.

The actors portraying the other members of the gang are excellent, too, even if their characters are little more than sketched in. As Hockney, Kevin Pollak brings a fiery sense of bravado. The strangest performance is turned in by Benecio Del Toro, who as Fenster speaks in an accent closely resembling that of Vincent Van Gopher in the old "Deputy Dawg" cartoons; about one out of three words is intelligible, but he gets a laugh every time he opens his mouth. The only real weak link is Stephen Baldwin, who is unconvincing.

The similarities Between "Suspects" and "Reservoir Dogs" are marked, and, initially, the structural puzzle games and the mixture of lyricism and macho posturing suggests faux Tarantino. But screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie—a former detective—is more straightforward and old-fashioned than Tarantino. And Singer, who also collaborated with McQuarrie on his first film, "Public Access," directs with far too much speed and dynamism to allow for the offhand grace notes and bits of weirdness that are Tarantino's specialty.

Ultimately, "The Usual Suspects" may be too clever for its own good. The twist at the end is a corker, but crucial questions remain unanswered. What's interesting, though, is how little this intrudes on our enjoyment. After the movie you're still trying to connect the dots and make it all fit—and these days, how often can we say that?

The Usual Suspects is rated R.

Copyright The Washington Post

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