Viking Night: The Usual Suspects

By Bruce Hall

December 7, 2010

One of these guys has the other three killed. Only the Baldwin deserves it.

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Most consumers have no problem loving a huge budget blockbuster. Movies that are meant to appeal to the widest possible audience usually do just that. But some films have a narrower vision, or simply contain more complex meaning than meets the eye. They aren't always art, and they aren't always even very successful. But for a devoted and eccentric few, they're the best entertainment money can buy. Once, beginning with Erik the Viking, a group of dedicated irregulars gathered weekly in a dingy dorm room to watch these films and discuss how what pleases the few might also appeal to the many. Time has separated the others in those discussions so that I alone remain to ponder the wider significance of cult cinema. But while the room is cleaner and I no longer have to skip class to do it, I still think of my far off friends whenever I hold Viking Night.

When I was a little boy, I was certain that my death would be at the hands of a guy in a red jumpsuit with horns, a pitchfork and a handlebar moustache. Let me clarify – I come from a pretty fundamental upbringing, so I was convinced from an early age that if I didn’t behave, You Know Who was going to come get me. He was under every rock, behind every bush and without a doubt hiding under my bed and in the back of my closet. That’s really a terrible thing to do to a kid if you ask me, but my preternatural fear of the Prince of Darkness kept me out of trouble more than once, so I guess it was all for the best. As I got older I let go of that fear, but we humans are superstitious creatures, and often it’s the devil you don’t see that you should most fear and who creates the most sorrow. This is the driving idea behind The Usual Suspects, the breakout indie sensation that put director Bryan Singer on the map. Together, Singer and screenwriter Chris McQuarrie created an enduring, convoluted caper both typical of mid '90s crime drama and evocative of the very best noir thrillers of years past. Bryan Singer has made a handful of good films, and while Superman Returns was not one of them, The Usual Suspects absolutely is.


Like most good stories, this one begins with a rather simple concept. Five felons are brought together for a police lineup after a mafia gun shipment goes missing. They’re placed in detention together in the hope that one of them will crack and give the police a lead. While there, they plan a brand new heist that ultimately leads to disaster for most of them. But like a lot of '90s crime thrillers, The Usual Suspects is shot out of sequence, so before we find out what went wrong, the film shows us the aftermath. A ship in the port of Los Angeles is nearly destroyed by fire during a blown drug deal and the only survivors are a badly burned crew member and one of the five hoods – a shifty, physically disabled small timer named Verbal (Kevin Spacey). The DEA is very interested in Verbal, since one of his partners was an ex-cop named Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) who has already faked his own death once to escape capture. The DEA sends Special Agent Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) to interrogate Verbal and he doesn’t have long to do it, since the clever crook has managed to work out an immunity deal with the DA and is set to be released on bail in two hours. The drugs are still missing and the entire investigation hangs in the balance, and depends on what Kujan can wring out of this smarmy little man.

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