The Usual Suspects (1995)
Directed by Bryan Singer

Artistic Value: * * *
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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A group of criminals being questioned by the police are placed in a cell together, where they decide to cooperate on an emerald heist. Their success leads them to continue their collaboration in a scheme to rob a ship being used to transport illegal drugs. As the plot to do so develops, the men become increasingly aware of a shadowy figure named Keyser Soze controlling their actions. The robbery goes wrong and all of the men are killed, except one, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), who is left to relate the events which occurred prior to that catastrophic night.

Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects is an entertaining, engaging film, but it is frequently overdone and generally uninspired. Its surprise ending will likely be apparent to the attentive viewer. Much of the characterization is hammy, and some of the acting is, frankly, silly. Despite such faults, the movie is, however, enjoyable. It simply is not more than a pleasant diversion.

The events leading up to the disastrous robbery are shown as they are narrated by Verbal Kint to a pair of police officers. We are consequently made aware only of what Verbal tells us. Singer employs this device to manipulate the viewer's perspectives and expectations so that, when he suddenly makes overt the extent to which we have been misled, we are made to reinterpret much of what we have seen in the light of the new information he has just given us. Such an approach could well have created a fascinating, clever movie. Unfortunately, Singer has been so obvious in his attempts to mislead and so prone to exaggeration in his portrayals of characters and events, that any person reasonably familiar with cinematic conventions will be aware of much, if not all, of the nature of the movie's surprise ending long before it is revealed.

What is more, The Usual Suspect's tendency towards exaggeration detracts from other areas of the film besides its conclusion. So much of the movie is so overwrought that a great deal of its possible impact on the viewer is substantially diminished. Keyser Soze's infamy and the various characters' dread of him, for example, are comically ostentatious. Instead of creating a sense of the presence of some menacing force, Singer's excesses almost make the viewer expect Count Dracula to make an appearance.

Fortunately, several of the actors acquit themselves well. While Spacey's character is ridiculously hokey, the performer does as much with the material as he could have. Benicio Del Toro's portrayal of a mumbling, incomprehensible hoodlum is a delight, and its being so can be credited to the actor alone. The character is essentially a nonentity, but Del Toro so brings him alive that he is joy to watch. A few of the other actors do, however, distract the viewer with hackneyed or cartoonish performances.

Despite its considerable flaws, The Usual Suspects is an entertaining film. While its ending is not surprising, and absolutely nothing subtle is included, the narrative is complex and inventive enough to be engaging. The Usual Suspects is worth seeing, although it is not particularly memorable.

Review by Keith Allen

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