The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘The Usual Suspects’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “The Usual Suspects.”

The info:

The Movie: “The Usual Suspects”

Starring: Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri

Director: Bryan Singer

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) The sole survivor tells of the twisty events leading up to a horrific gun battle on a boat, which began when five criminals met at a seemingly random police lineup.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 88 percent

Our take:

Brown: Last week, we watched in grim shock as murder after murder took place in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” And cold-blooded killing is the name of the game again this week as we trade in scary for suspenseful with “The Usual Suspects.” Here, the only scary thing is seeing Stephen Baldwin get top billing, which I refused to do in our movie synopsis above.

Like many JOE-DOWN picks I’ve done previously, this came solely from me never seeing this movie in this entirety. And I knew this movie would be good considering that it got two Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay and best supporting actor for Kevin Spacey.

One hangup I was concerned about: Bryan Singer, the director. He also has done a bunch of the “X-Men” movies which are hit-and-miss with me.

While I take a sip out of my Kobayashi coffee mug, what was your original take on this movie, Froemming?

Froemming: This was the most intense episode of “Undercover Boss” I have ever seen.

Like you, I had never watched this the whole way through. I have tried before, but since I work nights, trying to watch a film like this while half-asleep just doesn’t work. And I was wondering if you were going to bring up Singer, since he made some “X-Men” movies you hate for whatever reason. Good thing we got that part out of the way, because there is a lot of ground to cover with this. While I stare at the the crap I have posted on my office wall and making up yarns from those items, why don’t you get us started.

Brown: From the get-go, we are thrown into a shipyard, where I kept expecting Nordberg to come barging into a ship and get shot over and over and over again to start “Naked Gun.” Alas, that isn’t the case and we watch, as a man we find out is criminal Dean Keaton, is hanging on to his last breath. He holds a brief conversation with a man he refers to Keyser before being shot to death. Then with a flick of a lit cigarette, gas is lit and a nearby ship (and a body lying on the ground) burst into flames.

Froemming: Are we 100 percent that wasn’t Nordberg’s body?

Brown: I cannot say for certain, but I feel confident considering that the man who played Nordberg, OJ Simpson, was on trial for murder when this movie came out.

Joking aside, awesome beginning to a movie. Normally, I like some exposition to familiarize myself with what we’re about to see. But this movie does a phenomenal job of setting a mysterious tone that draws you in deeper and deeper.

Froemming: I agree. I just want to add that I loved a lot of this new-era film noir that came out of the 90s with this and films like “Pulp Fiction.” It is a genre I have always enjoyed.

Anyway, we are then transported back in time by six weeks to New York, where we see a very much alive Dean Keaton having dinner with his girlfriend and potential business partners when the police show up to question him about a recent caper.

At first, I thought this was a big show from the police, seeing they could have just have waited after the man ate. But we find out that Keaton has a troubled past in law enforcement.

We also get a montage of our other suspects arrested on suspicion of this crime: Michael McManus (The lesser Baldwin brother), Fred Fenster (Benicio del Toro), Todd Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and Roger “Verbal” Kint (Spacey). All have nefarious pasts in crime. All are pretty solid actors, minus the doofus Baldwin, who I just kept picturing as Doyle from “Bio-Dome.”

Brown: Don’t knock “Bio-Dome.” That movie is a guilty pleasure.

With that said, I’ll get to it at one point but Baldwin is my biggest problem with this movie.

Speaking of people you pictured in this movie, I kept thinking this movie had amazing foresight because Fred Fenster had a Bruno Mars look to him.

So this fivesome all get the shakedown from the cops for a crime they legit didn’t commit. And as they sit in lockup after being interrogated, all five get chummy, save for Keaton who is trying (not all that hard) to go straight. And with five career criminals together, they come up with a scheme (led by McManus) to steal some jewels for a man named Redfoot. Everyone is in after Verbal manages to talk Keaton into it.

Froemming: Now, this is all coming from the narration of Verbal from, I presume, his testimony about what happened on the ship that got him total immunity from prosecution. This eventually starts to change as he is speaking to the police later on. So already, we are going on the word of a criminal, who is not exactly a trustworthy source of information.

In Verbal’s take, he convinces Keaton to get on board because the other guys won’t let him join if Keaton isn’t there. After punching Verbal so hard that he just might poop blood, he agrees to a heist. A heist that takes on a criminal element within the NYPD that he began in his short, five-year stint as a police officer years ago.

Brown: There’s another element to Verbal’s storytelling when customs agent Dave Kujan (Palminteri) joins the fray and tries to get more info out of Verbal before he posts bail. There were two survivors of the dock fire: Verbal and a Hungarian man who was burned badly and in a short coma. Across town, the Hungarian comes out of his coma and starts spouting out “Keyser Söze” over and over.

Folks, if you’re in college and need a drinking game, you can drink every time someone says “Keyser Söze” in this movie, but I discourage it. It will end badly, like when me and my friends Alex and Joey drank every time the F-word was said in “The Departed.” I was sick after a half-hour.

And, because why not, here’s an actual “The Usual Suspects” drinking game.

Froemming: We should also note that the man is being interrogated by Gus Fring before his meth empire in New Mexico a decade late while posing as the owner of a Los Pollos Hermanos FBI Special Agent Jack Baer (Giancarlo Esposito), who is working the case.

Now, in New York six weeks prior, the gang marks a police car that smuggles criminals to safety for cash. And they go in with guns, vans and sledgehammers. They also call the media before the police, thus putting away some corrupt cops while publicly shaming them as well. This, I should add, was done completely out of spite for the police arresting them earlier in the film. Which, I just love.

Brown: Me too. What a nice F-you to the guys who arrested them for no reason.

Now, after this robbery, we get some tense moments from our five robbers as they look over the jewels they stole. Mostly, it’s McManus being a smug jerk and Hockney being extremely hot-headed. And here’s my problem with Baldwin in this movie: He can’t decide if he’s supposed to be badass or smug. It just comes off like a terrible Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” where he’s whisper-talking and mean-mugging everyone. Kurt Russell can pull that (REDACTED), you can’t, Stephen Baldwin.

Froemming: His performance is so confused to me. He is trying at times, like you said, to be the bad ass. Then he is the hot-head. Then he tries to be the cool cucumber. It is all over the map and baffled me. (REDACTED) you, Stephen Baldwin.

But I will say I enjoyed Fenster as the mush-mouth of the group. I could understand what he was saying probably 25 percent of the time. At least del Toro was consistent with the character.

Brown: del Toro worked in this movie. It’s just too bad we only get a small dose of him.

Anyhow, Verbal tells Kujan that the group went to California as the customs agent presses him. See, Kujan believes that Keaton is the mastermind of the operation since the cop robbery had Keaton’s crooked cop fingerprints all over it.

When the five get to California, they are greeted by Redfoot, fresh off of being flushed down a giant toilet in “The Mask.” He turns up in LA because bad joke about LA being a toilet or something. Redfoot has another heist lined up for our fivesome.

Froemming: Was this before or after Redfoot had his junk shot off by Marsellus Wallace in the basement of that pawn shop in “Pulp Fiction?”

Well, Redfoot tells the guys that the next mark is another jewel heist. Easy. Just a few bodyguards. No big problem. Keaton is so on the fence he feels the urge to tell Redfoot that he shanked a mutual friend of theirs in prison. I had no idea what the (REDACTED) motivation behind that was.

But hey, these guys are all criminals, so they decide to take the job!

Brown: And this one doesn’t go quite as smooth as the cop heist. Shots are fired, Stephen Baldwin holds two guns in the most awkward way possible and there are NO jewels. Instead, they stole a briefcase full of cocaine.

Keaton and the group confront Redfoot about the robbery and is told the job came from an unknown party who just so happens to want to meet these guys.

Before we get to that, I just want to mention that all these roles are cast exceptionally well. But my favorite casting is Byrne as Dean Keaton. He has the look and demeanor of a police department higher-up (that just so happened to be crooked). And Byrne plays the conflict of a guy who is trying to get his act together because of his girlfriend but knows the only thing he’s good at is robbin’ extremely well. He looks troubled almost constantly.

Froemming: My favorite casting was Spacey. I think I enjoy his performance in just about every film I have seen him in. Especially here as the hapless, disabled criminal who looks like a toddler could beat him up. There are times you actually feel sorry for this schmuck. And him being bullied by Kujan as he tells his side of the story, it is just a great performance.

Well, it turns out that a lawyer by the name of Kobayashi wants to meet the guys. This is a man who works for the mysterious Keyser Söze, who has a file on everyone one of the guys about their entire criminal history. It turns out that they all have something in common: They all, at one point, have inadvertently stolen from Söze. All documented and retold to them by Kobayashi during their meeting with him.

Brown: Söze knows all. He’s the Microsoft of crime, it seems: Everything involves him in some capacity directly or indirectly. It’s an insane urban legend.

And, Verbal’s retelling is how Kujan hears about this Paul Bunyan of organized crime. I particularly enjoy Verbal telling a story about how Söze’s family in Turkey were held for ransom. The story is grim, involving kids held at knifepoint and a wife raped before Söze just ups and kills his own family. But I couldn’t help but laugh at the portrayal of Söze here with long hair and suit like some bad Antonio Banderas early ‘00s action movie. “Desperado” doesn’t quite fit the world of “The Usual Suspects.”

Froemming: One of my favorite lines comes in this scene when Verbal says: “Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.” Thus making the urban legend even bigger in the plot. I mean, he convinces the police that Söze is real, despite there being no any real evidence of that. It is pretty cool.

Now, the guys are not happy that they are being blackmailed into a drug heist by Kobayashi, so they come up with a scheme to let him know that they can get to him as well. They do this by sneaking into the building he works at, killing his two bodyguards in an elevator and threatening him. Does this work?

Brown: It does, up until they get to an office where we see Keaton’s lawyer girlfriend busy working in the same building. It’s that moment in the movie where Keyser Söze has the upper hand, like John Doe in “Se7en.” So, they are in on the Söze job: Fight through Argentinian drug dealers and destroy $91 million worth of cocaine, effectively killing the competition.

Froemming: But in exchange, the survivors get to keep the $91 million in cash that was going to be the payment for the drugs.

Brown: Deadliest tontine ever.

Froemming: Well, the guys really have no choice. Fenster tries to walk away from this whole mess, and is found dead on the beach. Nobody escapes Söze, nobody.

Well, the gang (and probably Nordberg, I don’t care what you say, Brown) take to the marina to fight through the impossible: Armed men inside the boat. Armed men outside the boat. The armed men with the cash for the drugs. And if “Bio-Dome” taught me anything, having Stephen Baldwin on your team means you will lose. Not just in the plot, but in life in general.

Brown: So in the heist, we have McManus as a sniper, Hockney setting up explosives and Keaton gunning down the henchmen as they emerge. Verbal, he just sticks back because reasons. And we get the most out-of-place line in the movie here, adding to my hatred of Baldwin as McManus. As McManus guns down one of the henchmen, he drops the out-of-context line “Oswald was a fag.” I mean, why? It doesn’t make McManus more of a badass. It’s just a terrible throwaway line that makes me wish we would have gotten an even lesser Baldwin like Billy or Daniel.

Froemming: I was really thrown by that line. It just baffled me.

But hey, we now have the guys blowin’ stuff up, shootin’ up some nameless bad guys, all while trying to find the drugs they need to destroy.

Brown: All the while, they’re holding their guns sideways because people in the ‘90s had no idea how to actually shoot a gun.

Froemming: I laughed at the beginning when Keaton is cut down because the faceless bad guy held his gun like that. And it never stops in this film. Bryan Singer must have watched too many bad B-movies to think people held guns like that.

Now, there is a problem with the job: There is money, but no drugs. We know there’s money because Hockney sees it before seeing a bright light before getting gunned down.

But we do know that someone on the boat has a connection to Söze. See, Keaton’s girlfriend was in town working on a deal to keep this man safe in exchange for information on the mysterious Söze! It wasn’t a drug heist, it was a hit job for Söze! And the witness is killed. Keaton is killed, because Verbal saw Söze shoot him dead. Or did he?

Brown: So while Verbal and Kujan have their little rap, the burnt Hungarian (remember him?) has been talking with the cops about Keyser Söze with a sketch artist in the room. We’ll get to that in a second.

Because Kujan isn’t buying this whole Keyser Söze thing, he keeps badgering Verbal into admitting that this whole scheme is Keaton’s idea. Keaton is Keyser Söze, Kujan says. We see Verbal break down and say it was Keaton. However, he won’t testify to that. Verbal’s bond is posted and Kujan can’t really do much except sip his coffee.

Froemming: It is understandable that Kujan didn’t pick up on the oddities of Verbal’s story, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE COP WHO SITS IN THAT OFFICE EVERYDAY? I mean, Kujan scans the wall for a brief moment and sees the name “Redfoot.” Sees that the coffee mug says “Kobayashi.” He realizes he has just been conned. What is the other officer’s reason for not picking up on this stuff?

And as the description of Söze is slowly faxed over because the technology was comically slow in the 1990s, we soon find out that wimpy old Verbal was Söze all along!

To be honest, I knew Verbal was Söze. I recognized Spacey’s voice at the start of the film before Keaton is shot. But at the time, Spacey wasn’t the big star he is today, so I get why people didn’t pick up on that at the time.

Brown: I hope I wasn’t the only one here that kind of chuckled during the reveal, since the overflowing bulletin board looked like Charlie Kelly’s paper trail of Pepe Silvia. Barney even looks like the portrayal of Keyser Söze.

So with this movie being 22 years old, I knew what the twist was. But holy (REDACTED), the reveal is so well-pieced together. It goes from “Oh, that’s kind of coincidental” to “Oh no, oh (REDACTED), I just let a crime lord out of my hands!” Just watch and enjoy.

Froemming: I just want to add here that I really love the fact that the whole movie we just watched was probably mostly made up on the spot by Söze. We never know what really happened to these guys once they left New York. That was pretty brilliant.

Brown: As Kujak is in a panic, you see Verbal Kint limp away from the police station into the confident stride of Keyser Söze as he hops in a car with the man we knew as Kobayashi. The devil himself, as Verbal refers to Söze, convinced Kujak that he didn’t exist.

And maybe the best ending line to a movie, “And like that, poof.”

I knew this ending was coming. And yet, I’m still mesmerized by it.

Froemming: It was pretty amazing. And with that, let’s go assault the shipyard we call recommendations.


Brown: Umm, yes. Sorry this isn’t the typical snarky reviews we do here on the JOE-DOWN. Sometimes, we need to fawn over good movies and this one exceeded my high expectations. I’m mad at myself for not watching it sooner.

Froemming: Yes. I am finally glad I had a good reason to watch this. It was one of those movies I always said I would get to, then didn’t. There is a reason it is considered one of the best movies of the 90s. Everything pretty is so well put together. Watch this.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

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