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The Usual Suspects 20th anniversary: What critics said in 1995

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Linda R. Chen

The Usual Suspects arrived in theaters 20 years ago this week, introducing the world to Keyser Söze and delivering one of the most memorable plot twists in movie history (“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled,” as Kevin Spacey taught us, “was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”).

The Bryan Singer-directed film, written by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Stephen Baldwin, Benicio Del Toro, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, and Pete Postlethwaite, starts with a deadly explosion on a boat and five con men brought together for a police lineup six weeks earlier, then layers on a tangled web of intricate storytelling building up to that big reveal.

McQuarrie marked the two-decade milestone with a post on Twitter, wishing a happy anniversary to Singer and “the rest of the line-up.”

https://twitter.com/chrismcquarrie/status/632816267250892800

 

In celebration of The Usual Suspects turning 20, we took a look back at what critics thought of The Usual Suspects when it came out in 1995:

“Dense with plot intricacies, thick with atmosphere, and packed with showy roles for a hip ensemble, The Usual Suspects is fun to watch — a celebration of cool actors having a good time playing sweaty and devious lowlifes.” — Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly 

“Hockney (Kevin Pollak), the smartass, speaks first, then the simmering McManus (Stephen Baldwin) and his manic Latino partner Fenster (Benicio Del Toro). Then it’s cool-hand Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-cop gone bad. Last up is Kint (Kevin Spacey), spat on as a stoolie gimp with a debilitating palsy who is out of his league with these killers. They call him Verbal for short; he can’t stop talking, especially if it’ll save his ass. Six weeks later, talk will mean exactly that. The film’s framing device is Verbal’s testimony to U.S. customs agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri). You say that ‘KOO-yan.’ In this mind-bender of a mystery, even pronunciation counts.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

“The story builds up to a blinding revelation, which shifts the nature of all that has gone before, and the surprise filled me not with delight but with the feeling that the writer, Christopher McQuarrie, and the director, Bryan Singer, would have been better off unraveling their carefully knit sleeve of fiction and just telling us a story about their characters – those that are real, in any event. I prefer to be amazed by motivation, not manipulation.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“From that heist The Usual Suspects expands, with admirable surefootedness, into an ever-widening, tangly web of stings, threats and conspiracies. It climaxes with the guys being handed a very big job by a mysterious, unseen drug lord named Keyser Soze. The buildup of suspense and dread pending the arrival of this satanic figure is impressive. But Suspects’ surprises and twists all seem dizzyingly arbitrary because director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie resort to subtle tricks in narrative and point of view. A little red herring is one thing. But don’t smack me in the face with it, all right?” — Tom Gliatto, PEOPLE

“Beyond following the demands of an unusually dense mystery plot, Mr. Singer and Mr. McQuarrie have also worked overtime at generating visual interest in their story. Even the jail cell looks eye-catchingly sleek when Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollak), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Roger (Verbal) Kint (Kevin Spacey) are locked up together one fateful evening. “It was all the cops’ fault,” Verbal later remembers. “You don’t put guys like that in a room together.” Not unless you want the endless set of high-testosterone conversational stand-offs that help keep The Usual Suspects perpetually on its toes.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“Ultimately, The Usual Suspects may be too clever for its own good. The twist at the end is a corker, but crucial questions remain unanswered. What’s interesting, though, is how little this intrudes on our enjoyment. After the movie you’re still trying to connect the dots and make it all fit — and these days, how often can we say that?” — Hal Hinson, Washington Post

“Besides Verbal, the felon we see most is Keaton (Gabriel Byrne), an ex-con turned businessman. Keaton’s moral nature is one of the big questions of the picture. Is he a reluctant criminal or a mastermind? A loyal friend or a heartless monster? Seeing him from Verbal’s perspective, he’s a decent guy, the kind of brooding stoic that Byrne can play in his sleep. But the real Keaton is elusive, and it’s only after some hard thinking once the movie is over that the viewer can be sure of the truth.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

“Who is Keyser Soze? Only the greatest international criminal mastermind since Dr. Fu Manchu, and, a few people think, just as fictional. Is he, as someone says, “a spook story criminals tell their kids at night,” or is his existence real, his nominally mythical status underlining the truism that ‘the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.’ And Kobayashi (British actor Pete Postlethwaite), the hypnotic, unflappable attorney who mysteriously appears to speak for him, certainly is impressive enough. Soon everyone is wondering what is real, what is imaginary, and what exactly is going on?” — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

 

Correction: An earlier version of this post named Michael Keaton as one of the film’s cast members. “Keaton” is the name of the character played by Gabriel Byrne.

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