The Usual Suspects (USA: 1995): A review at 20

The first in a periodic series of reviews of films celebrating milestones in 2015

Release Date: January 25, 1995

It is difficult to believe that The Usual Suspects is 20 already. Bryan Singer’s mid-1990s pulp about five criminals attempting a heist to save their lives seemed to be pointing the way toward a noir future when it was released. It seems like just yesterday we were talking about a twist ending that “we never saw coming.” Sure it wasn’t The Crying Game (1992) levels of twisted, but I think we were out of the practice of watching suspense tales unfold, so the question of “Who Is Keyser Soze?…If he even exists” was fresh for us without long film memories at the time.

Kevin Spacey won his first Oscar for his role in the film. Christopher McQuarrie also won an Oscar for original screenplay. Both screenwriter and director would pair up again several times in much bigger budget fare – most notably X-Men, Jack, the Giant Slayer, and Valkyrie. As far as independent movies go, it could be considered a success. Below are four questions to contemplate at 20:

What’s to Like?

  • The acting of the ensemble cast. Kevin Spacey still wokrs well as a con-man battling through questioning from Chazz Palminteri’s dogged customs investigator. Gabriel Byrne plays an authoritative criminal who just finally wants to go straight. And Benecio del Toro is still delightfully incomprehensible as an ostentatious hi-jacker.
  • If one isn’t too concerned about the lack of police presence during the extended shoot out at the harbor, the film manages to keep its suspense levels high.

What’s Not to Like?

  • The cinematography. Everyone is orange. If one was tired of orange/teal color grading by 2010, perhaps it felt fresh in 1995. But honestly, everyone in every scene is orange and no matter what time of day, and appears to be lit by a sunset whether indoors or out. Sunset isn’t a menacing time, so I found it an odd choice for a noir.
  • Pete Postlethwaite in yellow-face.A major supporting character known only as Kobayashi is played by a Caucasian actor made up to look Asian and given a nondescript accent. It isn’t really essential that the character is Asian and at least they don’t have him spouting ancient Japanese proverbs, but they could have either cast a Japanese actor in the role or changed his name to something else.

Is it Still “Fresh?”

  • Surprisingly, yes. It is still enjoyable. It is helped by the relatively timeless sense of fashion styling. None of the actors were supposed to be “cool” by the standards of the time, so we don’t have trendy haircuts that now seem dated. Just timeless schlub. The soundtrack still works. The movie stayed away from the politics of the time so the side concerns of major characters aren’t stuck in issues resolved 20 years ago. I don’t think the ending has become cliche.

Should it be Remade, Retold or Sequel-ed?

  • 20 years is long enough for films to escape down the memory hole, but I can’t see the need to remake the film. I guess they could give everyone i-Phones in an updated version, but what the criminals would do with them is beyond me. As for a sequel – I guess we could have the further adventures of Keyser, but I’m not certain what he would do to top himself.

Verdict

I would recommend checking it out this anniversary year if one has not seen it before. For those who had seen it, well, it is difficult to recommend re-watching a film with a twist ending. While the acting is good, most of the actors in the film have given better performances elsewhere. I don’t think there is much potential for character revelations in the film to warrant second or third viewings.

Rating: still ***1/2

IMDB: The Usual Suspects

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