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This One is Hard to Categorize
by Jon Schuller

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Did you ever try to describe a movie you've just seen – and liked - to a friend without giving away too many of the details. You talk about the actors and their characters; or the locations for the film; maybe there's a car chase or a particularly grizzly murder scene. You try to arouse interest while being careful not to spoil it. I know I've done this countless times, even talking about old movies, and it's not easy to be vague. What happens if you see a film and it's hard to describe, hard to classify; but you still want to excite your listeners so they, too, will want to see it. Not an easy task after a while. I am partial to mysteries and thrillers, regardless of where they're set or when they take place. Many have been simple, straightforward movies with the obvious bad and good guys (e.g., Goodfellas, The Maltese Falcon, Broken City, Heat, any James Bond film, The Contender, to name just a few). We pretty much understand the plot and the characters from the outset. But, occasionally, we are mystified and just when we think we know who's who, there's a twist, a surprise, a line of dialogue and we have to go back to the beginning. A favorite of mine, The Usual Suspects, debuted in August, 1995 and it's a great film simply because you can't label it.

We meet five men, all with criminal backgrounds, who've been thrown together in a large jail holding cell, put there because they're suspected of being part of gun shipment conspiracy and a robbery. The main character who's been describing their individual lives is Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a handicapped man who has difficulty speaking. The film had opened with a suspicious fire on-board a ship docked in San Pedro harbor, near Los Angeles. He was one of two
survivors from the fire and the other, a Hungarian man who speaks no English. The Hungarian keeps babbling about a major bad guy named Keyser Söze, which draws immediate attention from an F.B.I. agent, Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) who's been investigating the gun shipments coming in there. Söze is, many think, a legendary master criminal, never seen or caught, who murdered his entire family while hostage to a rival gang. Kint relates much of the background for the other four men sitting with him in the jail: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a former corrupt cop and criminal; Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a professional thief; Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), who can't be understood; and Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a professional hijacker. All of them listen to Kint's stories and slowly decide that they could become involved in the on-going scenario, robbing the bad guys as a bonus.

But they need funding and find out from McManus that some corrupt New York City policemen have been acting as a courier protection service for smugglers and jewelry fencers. Robbing the bad cops would be a nice bit of revenge for being unjustly arrested. They work on the details and, after being released, successfully steal the jewels right from under the cops' protection service. They go to Los Angeles to fence the stolen jewels with Redfoot (Peter Greene) who McManus knows. He tells them about another potential heist job in L.A. It turns out it was a set-up and there were no jewels, just heroin. It was arranged by a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) who, it turns out works for Söze, and knows everything about their sordid pasts, including how each of them had inadvertently offended the master criminal. Söze will let them off the
hook, in a manner of speaking, if they agree to destroy a shipload of cocaine, worth $91 million to a rival Hungarian gang. If they don't agree, he'll kill all of them – and their families.

The guys don't like being ordered around by some unseen, unknown gangster and decide to turn the tables. They kidnap the lawyer, Kobayashi, and threaten him if he doesn't reveal who Söze is and maybe keep a slice of the drugs for themselves. Kobayashi tells them that Edie Finneran (Suzy Amis), who is also an attorney and Keaton's girlfriend, is at that moment in his office on legal matters. She'll be killed instantly, and, again, their families as well, if the guys don't abide by the plan and carry out Söze's orders. They have no choice but to comply.

Keaton, McManus and Hockney stake out the ship; Keaton tells Verbal to stay behind with their truck just in case things go wrong. McManus is an expert sniper and slowly takes out the bad guys on the boat (as he sings Ol' Macdonald Had a Farm). They search the ship looking for the drugs but slowly realize the whole plan was a major con. McManus and Hockney, plus another man on the ship, are all killed by a mysterious man who Verbal later says must be Söze. He sets the ship on fire as Verbal looks on, horrified, from a hiding place as the mystery man then kills Keaton.

Verbal has been relaying all of these events to U.S. Customs Special Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and Sergeant Jeffrey "Jeff" Rabin (Dan Hedaya) inside the local police station near the harbor and the scene of the fire. Kujan is convinced that it was Keaton all along who masterminded the entire convoluted plot and may even have been the elusive master criminal, Söze. Verbal has become more and more emotional as he
relays all of the sordid details from the beginning. Eventually, Kujan agrees to let Kint go and Verbal, despite his obvious physical handicaps, starts to walk out the door and down the street. We see a transformation take place as he walks away.
Without a doubt, this is one of the most elaborate plots ever devised for a major motion picture. We have a cast of characters who are at once different but somehow blend together into a colorful weave of danger and deviousness. No one is above the law and yet we're never quite sure who is who. Are there definitive good guys and bad guys? As soon as we think we've got it figured out, another puzzle piece is added and throws us off the track. The actors are superb, both as individuals and as an ensemble cast; there are no "minor" parts. Every character is finely etched but their commonalities as criminals put them together perfectly. Above them all, is the mysterious and mystical super villain/super-hero, Keyser Söze, whom no one has ever seen, but whose legendary crimes and deadly acts are almost common knowledge among the bad guys. I love movies like this that I can re-watch, always knowing the dialogue, the plot and the surprises because the actors make it so fascinating.

Although The Usual Suspects has won awards – especially from the AFI's Top 10 "classic" lists and getting a top mystery film rating – not all the critics in 1995 were impressed. So what? The public then, and still, enjoys this movie. The interesting musical score was written by John Ottman. The director, Bryan Singer, said that he had many influences and comparisons to other films that became woven into the final product. When you watch it, you may have to watch it two or three times to catch all the little nuances and details.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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