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The Best $6,000,000 Hollywood Ever Spent: The Usual Suspects (1995), Or Double Indemnity Meets Rashomon.

A new follower of JPFmovies, JF (no relation), requested our thoughts on the lineup scene in The Usual Suspects.  As you know, we don’t turn down requests so JF this one is for you.

In 1995, director Brian Singer and writer Christopher McQuarrie created The Usual Suspects for $6,000,000.  It is some of the best money ever spent in Holly Wood.  The title was taken from the famous scene in Casablanca:

Captain Renault: Major Strasser’s been shot.

[Renault looks at Rick, Rick gives him a look]

Captain Renault: Round up the usual suspects.

[The police pick up Major Strasser’s body and leave, Renault looks over at Rick, who is smiling]

The Usual Suspects was shown out of competition at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, and then initially released in a few theaters.  The film received favorable reviews, and was eventually given a wider release.  McQuarrie won an Academy Award for the screenplay and Spacey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.  Ultimately, the film grossed about $24,000,000 during its run.

The film begins where it ends, on a ship in San Pedro Bay, as someone acknowledged as “Keyser” briefly speaks with an injured man named Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), and then shoots Keaton and sets the ship aflame.  The next day, FBI Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito) and U. S.  Customs special agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) appear on the scene to determine what happened.  There are only two survivors: Roger “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey), a con man with a case of CP and a limp, and a fried Hungarian mobster named Arkosh Kovash.  Baer (while smoking a cigar) attempts to question the still smoldering Kovash in the burn unit, who is delirious but claiming that Keyser Söze, a ruthless Turkish criminal with a legendary reputation, was killing everyone in the harbor. Kovash manages to give a description of Söze to a police sketch artist.

In the present, looking back on events, Kint sits across a desk from Agent Kujan, unfolding the tale as he remembers it.  Five criminals are brought together in a police lineup: Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), a corrupt former police officer who has apparently given up his life of crime to become “a lawyer’s wife;” Michael McManus (Stephen Baldwin), a short-tempered professional thief; Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), McManus’ partner who speaks in distorted English; Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak), a hijacker who forms an instant rivalry with McManus; and Verbal.

The lineup scene is the most famous scene in the film; a snapshot appears in the movie’s posters and other promotional materials. The scene caused the movie to run into scheduling problems because the actors kept blowing their lines.  If you watch the clip closely the actors were fed questions off-camera and they improvised their lines.  When Stephen Baldwin would give his answer, all of the others kept breaking character.  Spacey is quoted as saying that the hardest part was not laughing through takes, with Baldwin and Pollack being the worst culprits.

Anyways back to the show.  While in the bull pen, McManus convinces the others to join forces (in part as retaliation for the harassment) to commit a robbery targeting New York’s Finest Taxi Service, a group of corrupt NYPD police officers who escort smugglers to their destinations around the city for a few hundred dollars a mile.  After robbing and humiliating the NYPD the fab 5 head to L.A. to fence the goods. The fence talks them into another job: robbing an ostensible jewel dealer.  Instead of carrying jewels or money as they were told, the dealer had heroin.  After an angry confrontation, the fence reveals that the job came from a lawyer named Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite).  The thieves later meet with Kobayashi, who claims to work for Keyser Söze and blackmails them into attacking a ship at San Pedro harbor.

Back to the present, Verbal tells Kujan the legend of Keyser Söze: Keyser understood that true power was not in how many guns you had, it was having the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t do, so the story, said Kint, was that after some Hungarian rivals invaded his home, raped his wife and killed one of his children, he showed these mobsters what true will really was by killing his own family rather than having them live another day after that. Then he butchered the entire mob and went underground, never directly dealing with anyone in person, and became “a spook story criminals tell their kids at night.”

With Verbal’s story finished, Kujan divulges what he knows: an Argentinian body was found that morning on shore, and it is revealed that the man, Arturo Marquez, in order to escape jail time, had said that he could personally identify Keyser Söze.  A group of Hungarians was offering to buy Marquez (not drugs) for $91 million.  Using the drug deal as cover, Kujan believed that Söze used Verbal and his crew to allow Söze to personally kill Marquez.  Kujan concludes that Keaton actually was Keyser Söze and Verbal admits that the whole affair was Keaton’s idea from the beginning.

His bail having been posted, Verbal retrieves his personal effects from the property officer including the gold watch and lighter seen in the opening minutes of the film.  As Kujan, looks around the office he realizes with shock that all the details and names from Verbal’s story are from various objects in the room.  Kujan realizes that most of Verbal’s story was improvised and chases after him, running past a fax machine as it prints the police artist’s sketch of Keyser Söze that is none other than Verbal Kint.  As Verbal walks away from the police station, he drops his feigned limp and gets into a waiting Jaguar, pulling away just as Kujan comes outside, searching in vain.

Nice.

The Usual Suspects came out the year of Kevin Costner’s acute downfall with Waterworld and (rightfully so) is lauded as Bryan Singer’s best film and Christopher McQuarrie’s masterpiece.  When people talk about the film, its surprise ending is the most commented upon, followed by Kevin Spacey’s performance, Benicio Del Toro’s crazy accent, and the famed lineup scene.  The Usual Suspects is one of those movies that is on the one hand beloved and on the other hand often nitpicked by the small minded screw-heads.  Even those who don’t readily identify with the film should recognize that it belongs in the must-see file.  Any movie that has the guts to tell a story largely based on the rumor of a phantom villain so terrifying his mere name inspires horror at the very least deserves to be seen.

The Usual Suspects is also another variation of the Rashomon technique known as the “unreliable narrator.”  Verbal Kint, our unreliable narrator, is revealed at the end to have referred to random words and visual details visible to the Kint in the interrogation room (i.e. a Kobayashi brand coffee mug) raising the question of how much, if any, of his story was true.  Kujan begins his questioning with a particular theory in mind, and Kint happily leads him astray by telling Kujan exactly what he’s expecting to hear (he even states that this is how police officers think, they only find what they expect to find).  What a film.

 
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Posted by on February 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews

 

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I think we discovered what happened to Mario Van Peebles: Posse (1993)

As you know, in my last post, I asked the question, what the hell happened to Mario Van Peebles?  Well, after he directed and starred in Posse (1993) we now know where he went—into the can.

Obviously, this is my humble opinion.  After Van Peebles costarred in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) with Eastwood, he then costarred with Wesley Snipes and others in New Jack City (1991) which was probably the best film Van Peebles has been in.  So a couple of years after New Jack City, a screw must have come loose when Van Peebles decided to direct and star in Posse.  As my regular visitors know, I have a very high threshold for bad movie pain but Posse took me to the limits.

Where to start.  Well, the story is presented as a flashback told by an unnamed Old Man with a Cuban prologue during the Spanish American War—one of the most cliché devices I think film makers use.  Jesse Lee (Mario Van Peebles) leads the US Army 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers who are fighting in the Spanish-American War in Cuba.  The 10th is barely holding its own and is under constant attack from enemy troops.  Jesse Lee runs back to the command post of the corrupt and racist Colonel Graham (Billy Zane) asking that the 10th Cavalry be allowed to pull back and regroup.  The crooked Colonel offers him a deal: in exchange for shooting a deserter he will permit the retreat.  Instead of killing the man in cold blood, Lee shoots a cigar out of his mouth.  After killing the deserter himself, the Colonel offers Jesse Lee’s command of the 10th to another prisoner called “Little J” (Stephen Baldwin) (the alternative is a firing squad). Graham then orders the 10th to fall back in order to begin another mission that will require them to wear civilian clothing, as opposed to their Cavalry uniforms, making them spies under the rules of war and deserters under the U.S. Army code of military justice.  The 10th is ordered to rob a Spanish gold shipment, which is really a setup to give the Colonel an excuse to execute the entire 10th Cavalry as deserters. 

The 10th get the gold and begin to run somewhere as a newly formed “Posse,” always just one step ahead of the evil Colonel.  After a number of chase scenes and close encounters, we discover that Jesse is really seeking revenge for the hanging of his father.  The run takes the Posse to some small towns where Jesse is known, respected and feared.  Eventually there is  about a 30 minute battle royale between the Posse and the white town folks and the evil Colonel.  Some of the Posse is killed (except of course for Jesse and his Indian squaw) and all of the white folks and soldiers either flee or die a loud death.  Then of course there is the climactic battle between Jesse and his arch nemesis the Colonel.  Well, I don’t think I need to tell you how that comes out. 

Finally, after the bloodshed, the gold and riding off into the sunset, we flash forward to the narrator who is now an old man telling the tale to some journalists and even has a book that Jesse’s father had given him somewhere along the way.

This move is bad on so many levels I hardly know where to start.  The film starts out looking good until the characters open their mouths, then it becomes clear that they are so flat, so comic book, so ‘much’, both the good and the bad guys are just over the top bad; I would try to describe them further but my fingers might turn to rust as if a pox were put on my computer.  Every stereotype imaginable manages to get a role in this one—right down to their names, like “Father Time” or “King David.”  Moreover, throughout the movie we are presented with an in-your-face history lesson of whitey’s oppression of everyone.  True or not: save it for the PBS documentaries. 

Now here is the worst part: the talent.  This movie had a formidable cast. Just look at this list:

Mario Van Peebles – as Jesse Lee

Stephen Baldwin – as Little J

Billy Zane – as Colonel Graham

Melvin Van Peebles – as Papa Joe

Big Daddy Kane – as Father Time

Blair Underwood – as Carver

Isaac Hayes – as Cable

Charles Lane – as Weezie

Robert Hooks – as King David

Richard Jordan – as Sheriff Bates

Pam Grier – as Phoebe

Aaron Neville – as Railroad Singer

Stephen J. Cannell (yes the TV & film writer who recently died of skin cancer)- as Jimmy Love

I mean come on, Pam Grier, Isaac Hayes, Blair Underwood (L.A. Law)!  Van Peebles managed to take a great cast, lots of money and a potential story and create something unbearable to watch.  Unfortunately, Posse is yet another classic example of what Hollywood considers its audiences to be—simple minded.  I don’t know, maybe they are, but that does not mean I have to like it.

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2011 in Movie Reviews

 

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