The Usual Suspects

Posted: April 19, 2021 in Book reviews, Film reviews
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By Christopher McQuarrie

In the aftermath of a brutal gun battle on board a ship in San Pedro Bay, twenty-seven people are dead, and there are only two survivors. One is a badly burned Hungarian mobster, the other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy. Verbal has somehow managed to wangle immunity for almost all of the crimes he’s been involved in, but still US customs agent Dave Kujan flies in from New York to interview Verbal. His interest is in a former cop turned hardened criminal Dean Keaton, a man who may or may not have died during the gun battle in San Pedro.

Verbal explains the series of events that led to he, and Keaton, winding up on the dock. It began weeks earlier when Verbal, Keaton and three other criminals (Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney) are arrested in New York in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of weapons. Used as a line-up they are quickly released, and just as quickly decide to team up to rob some corrupt cops. After one successful job they embark upon a second in LA, but things don’t go to plan and they find they’ve been brought together at the behest of Keyser Söze, a mythical Turkish gangster, quite literally the bogeyman.  Söze claims they’ve all stolen from him in the past, and now to clear their debt he wants them to attack a ship in San Pedro Bay.

Kujan is convinced Keaton is actually Söze and that he survived the massacre in San Pedro, but is he right?

Okay clear spoiler warning here. This review relates t the script of a 25 year old film with one heck of a twist in the tail and if you somehow have managed to avoid that spoiler for goodness sake just go and watch the film! Otherwise carry on reading.

McQuarrie won the best original screenplay Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why because it’s exceptionally well put together. It’s a lean script, without an ounce of fat and with not a single extraneous scene that doesn’t contribute something towards the plot. Yes you could argue that the characters are thinly drawn yet none quite feel like mere cyphers, and this is a script that comes down to it’s plotting, an elegant case of misdirection, a magic trick using words instead of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to see why this won an Oscar and it’s a great example of writing that I think every script writer, or aspiring script writer could learn from reading.

The Film

Reading the script inspired me to watch the film again, for perhaps the first time this century! Given I’d watched it so recently after reading the script it seemed churlish not to say a few words about the film as well.

Now obviously this is a film that comes with a lot of baggage these days, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacy. Heck you can even throw in the late great Pete Postlethwaite in brownface with a dodgy Indian accent for good measure. Oh, and the sole female character exists only in relation to Keaton.

But still, this is a very good film—how could it not be coming off of that script—and yes it’s directed very well, and damn it if Spacy isn’t annoyingly good. With hindsight it seems much more obvious that Kint is Keyser Söze, heck in that early scene on the boat you can make out it’s Spacy and hear his voice, of course much of that might just be knowing what to look for! Similarly the big reveal feels a little less special, and damn Kint must have really good eyesight given how far away from the noticeboard he is.

But the measure of a good film, especially one dependant on a twist, is how enjoyable it is when you know what’s coming, and this was still a hugely enjoyable film, and the decent cast make the best of wafer think roles (kudos to del Toro who damn near steals the show). A sharp, violent thrill ride that still holds up a quarter of a century later.  

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