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The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects DVD

The Usual Suspects, a 1995 American movie, stars Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro and Kevin Pollak. The screenplay (which went on to win an Academy Award) and star cast did not create much excitement or box office revenue during the movie's initial release, but word-of-mouth has since made this movie one of the most highly-regarded of crime movies. It is consistently in the Top 20 on the Internet Movie Database's Top 250 Movies list.

Roger "Verbal" Kint (Spacey), a small-time con, is in a police interrogation, and tells his interrogator, Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), a convoluted story about events leading to a massacre and massive fire that have just taken place on a boat docked at Los Angeles. Using flashback and narration, Verbal's story becomes all the more convoluted as he tries to explain, to Kujan's satisfaction, why he and his partners-in-crime were on that boat.

The movie starts with a man being killed on a boat. The murderer has a gold cigarette lighter and shoots the other fellow in the head two times, before using spilled gasoline to incinerate the boat.

The movie then starts again with Agent Kujan interrogating Verbal on the status of criminal Dean Keaton, who was involved in the boat fire. Kujan wants to make sure Keaton is dead, and insists that Verbal tells his story, despite the fact that Verbal has already made his statements and been granted immunity.

The movie then starts again, with five crooks being brought together in a police line-up on trumped-up charges. They are an eclectic bunch: Keaton (Byrne) appears to have gone legit; McManus (Baldwin) and Hockney (Pollak) form an instant rivalry; Verbal himself has cerebral palsy and walks with a lurch; and Fenster (Del Toro) talks in such mangled English that, according to DVD bonus material, even the actors themselves had trouble understanding him. One thing is certain: since all of them are guilty of something, they're probably innocent of what they're actually being accused of (hijacking a truck full of firearms).

While in jail, the five suspects join forces to plan an emerald heist (as well as a flipping-off of the NYPD), and though Keaton had planned to stay away from further "work", he finds himself continually involved in the group's criminal activities. Eventually they wind up in California, where they are blackmailed by a lawyer named Kobayashi (played by Pete Postlethwaite) into doing a job for someone named Keyser Soze. (Simultaneous to the flashback narrative, an FBI agent receives the eye-witness accounts of one of the gangsters from the destroyed boat – he shouts Soze's name over and over and is eventually coaxed into giving a visual description.) Keaton, Fenster, McManus and Hockney react to Soze's name with a desperation bordering on terror; Verbal, for his part, simply wants to know who the man is.

Keyser Soze, as Verbal relates it, is organized crime's version of the monster under the bed. When he was a small-time Hungarian dope runner, a neighboring gang tried to seize his territory and business by taking his family hostage. Soze, in response, killed his own family (and all but one of the threatening gangsters) and then started a crusade against the gang, systematically eliminating their friends, family, children, lovers, parents, friends of parents before eventually disappearing. He is a criminal mastermind, and his name strikes fear into the heart of hardened criminals. Is he real? Nobody knows.

Back in the narrative, Fenster loses his nerve and bolts; several hours later Kobayashi tells the remaining four how to find his body. After further application of threat, the remaining suspects agree to take on the heist: on a boat docked at Santa Monica (the boat from the beginning), two gangs are meeting to finalize the sale of, and then exchange $91 million in cocaine. The suspects are to prevent this from happening, as the sale would be unfortunate for Soze's business. If the suspects wait for the deal to be sealed, they may help themselves to any cash they might stumble upon, but this will require fighting through nearly twice the number of bodyguards. Regardless, they opt for this strategy – if they are going to risk their lives, they at least want a payoff. Keaton tells Verbal to stay back and make a run for it if things go wrong, which they do; Keyser Soze himself appears and puts an end to all of the remaining suspects, save Verbal himself. Simultaneous to the narrative, the FBI agent discovers, among the dead from the boat, a man from Soze's organization who was about to hand Soze over to the law. This man has been shot twice in the head, which is Soze's calling card. Furthermore, it is discovered that there were, in fact, no drugs on the boat. Kujan believes that the whole point of the exercise was not to interrupt a dope transaction, but rather for Soze to kill the man who was going to rat him out.

Kujan returns Verbal to the crucial point: is Keaton dead? Verbal is sure: he saw Soze trigger the two headshots (which the audience recognizes from the beginning of the movie). But what was Soze actually shooting at? It is Kujan's belief that Keaton is actually Soze (Keaton had successfully faked his own death two years earlier, to say nothing of Soze's activities), which raises the odd question: why is Verbal, then, even alive? Why did Keaton actually tell him to get lost, if his whole objective was to kill anyone who might turn Keaton/Soze over to the police? No one has any ideas. But, regardless, Verbal's bail has been posted, and he departs with his legal immunity, deciding to take his chances on the street rather than submit to the dubious auspices of the Witness Protection Program.

Verbal receives his personal effects from the jail warden: a gold watch, a gold cigarette lighter. Kujan, relaxing in the office he used for the interrogation, sees a sudden number of parallels between Verbal's story and objects around the room; most notably, the cups from which they both have been drinking coffee are made by a company called Kobayashi. He scrambles outside, just missing a fax with the artist's impressions of Keyser Soze's face (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the now released Verbal Kint). As Verbal leaves the jail, his limp suddenly disappears. He steps into a waiting car driven by "Mr. Kobayashi" and departs just as Kujan arrives, desperately searching for "the cripple", a man who no longer exists. The credits roll.

The movie ends with more questions raised than answered. Verbal's story is clearly unreliable, since he confesses to seeing Soze shoot Keaton – wheras all the evidence points to Verbal himself being Keyser Soze (however, Kint is not actually seen watching Soze kill Keaton – only the ropes he is supposedly hiding behind are shown). But even this is not necessarily true. While Verbal Kint is clearly a consummate liar and a very good chameleon, that doesn't mean he's anything more than Verbal Kint. Director Bryan Singer, however, confesses that he's pretty sure Kint is Soze: the gold cigarette lighter is prominent in the opening scene; the careful listener can hear Kint say that he himself killed Keaton after Kujan pushes him to the floor; and finally Singer points out that "söze", in the Turkish dictionary from which he and writer Christopher McQuarrie took the word, is defined as garrulous or talkative – in other words, verbal. Regardless, though, Gabriel Byrne (Keaton) was pretty sure that his character was Soze; at least until he saw the finished movie. Soze's lawyer "Mr. Kobayashi" picking Kint up from jail and the fax transmission of Soze that shows Verbil's face are obvious indications that Kint is Soze.

Trivia

  • The inspiration and title comes from Christopher McQuarrie detailing his new movie to a friend and saying "It will have the usual suspects in it."
  • The expression "the usual suspects" became famous as part of a quote from Casablanca. In the last szene of Casablanca, Captain Renault orders to "Round up the usual suspects!"
  • It was directed by Bryan Singer, whose credits also include X-Men, X2, Public Access, and Apt Pupil. Writer Christopher McQuarrie earned the 1995 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for the script of The Usual Suspects, which is by far the main star of the story – after, of course, Keyser Soze.
  • The character of Soze is based on murderer John List.
  • The film was shot on the unheard budget of $4 million – and they blew up a boat at the end.
  • A website devoted to San Francisco politics takes its name from both Casablanca and this movie, and is found at www.SFUsualSuspects.com.
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