Tag: Benecio del Toro

The Usual Suspects (1995)

The immortal gang in legendary twist thriller The Usual Suspects

Director: Bryan Singer

Cast: Stephen Baldwin (Michael McManus), Gabriel Byrne (Dean Keaton), Benicio del Toro (Fred Fenster), Kevin Pollak (Todd Hockney), Kevin Spacey (Roger “Verbal” Kint), Chazz Palminteri (Agent Dave Kujan), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi), Suzy Amis (Edey Finneran), Giancarlo Esposito (Jack Baer), Dan Hedaya (Sergeant Jeff Rabin)

SPOILERS: If you have been living in a cave since 1995, don’t read on as I discuss the twist at great length…

“Convince me”. That’s what Customs Agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) says as he begins his interrogation of limping, low-time crook “Verbal” Kint (Kevin Spacey). That’s certainly what Kint does – and it’s what the whole film is aiming to do in this, the most famous confidence trick in movies. The Usual Suspects is one of those once-in-a-blue-moon films where everything comes together perfectly. It’s also a sleight-of-hand movie that remains hugely engaging and entertaining even when (as surely most people now do!) you know exactly what the magician has up his sleeve. Its solid gold entertainment factor even survives today, despite the slightly queasy presence of both Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer in its credits.

Told in flashback, the film follows the coming together of a bunch of regular criminals, pulled in for a line-up and deciding to team up. Along with Verbal, the others include McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Fenster (Benecio del Toro), Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and ex-cop turned criminal Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne). After a successful series of heists, the gang are conscripted by suspicious lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) to take on a dangerous hijacking job for shadowy – possibly legendary – master criminal Keyser Soze, the bogeyman of the criminal classes. We know the job will go wrong – after all Verbal is banged up telling the whole story, the only survivor of the job – but how? And who is the shadowy Soze – or is he even real at all?

The Usual Suspects takes what you know about movies and then works double time to use it against you. With a structure inspired by classic noir crime films from the 1940s – the whole operation has a touch of The Asphalt Jungle while the interrogation has more than a hint of Double Indemnity – mixed in with a lot of Rashomon, it’s a movie that has you primed so much for a reveal and a twist that it skilfully misdirects you into expecting the wrong thing. Because how could you guess that perhaps the whole movie is a spun-out-of-the-moment invention by Verbal, and that possibly almost nothing we see during the course of its run time even happened. 

But how can we guess? From the very first scenes with Kujan and Verbal, Kujan is shot dominating the frame, always taller, always filling the screen. Verbal is sitting, meek, trapped by the frame, the camera frequently looking down at him. Every shot subliminally tells us that he is weak. The story has to be dragged out of him, with the investigation outside of the room forcing Verbal to expand on issues he doesn’t want to touch on. Like Kujan we invest in what we are finding out, because it looks like Verbal doesn’t want to tell it to us. That’s how they get you.

Because Verbal, in his story, is sprinkling in just the twist that Dave (and the audience) is probably expecting – that Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton, the guy who claimed to have gone good, who just wanted out, was bad the whole time and was the criminal mastermind this whole time. Christopher McQuarrie’s ingenious script primes us for this: Dave Kujan is casting doubt on Keaton’s “death” right from the start, and as the audience surrogate figure we want to be as smart as he is. So what does it matter that we ”see” Keaton shot in the opening sequence of the film? Surely that was an illusion, and we’re as clever as Kujan in seeing through it.

The film even gives us a brilliantly assembled “reveal” series of edited flashbacks, in which every small moment and hint that has existed in the film is replayed for us (John Ottman’s editing is flawless here – and he should also have credit for composing the film’s hauntingly classical score) to convince us, beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yup, poor simple Verbal was taken in all the time by dastardly Keaton, the guy who looks like a film star. Only of course it’s bollocks. That charred corpse that Singer jump cuts to at the start of the film as police investigate the boat massacre is indeed Keaton. And the clever twist we thought we were working out, turns out to be a mass distraction laid out for us by Verbal and the film.

So we get a second brilliantly edited reveal sequence as it hits Kujan while he studies that most famous notice board in film, that everything he thought he had worked out had been spun out of hints and clues off the board – from asides and anecdotes to entire locations and characters. And Kevin Spacey limps and then walks away, shrugging off the skin of timid, weak Verbal to transform into the chillingly amoral Soze. It’s a trick that worked especially well when Spacey was an almost unknown actor at the time (today it’s less of a surprise to find out that Spacey could be a creep). There is possibly no better reveal in Hollywood.

But the film continues to entertain even when you know it because Singer’s film is stuffed with richly layered characters, scintillating scenes and some rich and spicy dialogue from McQuarrie. It’s a brilliant combination and provides every scene with a clear and electric dynamism that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away. There are some truly striking scenes – not least the iconic line-up scene – and the film carries an improvisational energy (that line-up scene is a magic use of outtakes, as the actors couldn’t keep a straight face during the sequence).

Part of the magic of it comes from the brilliant clash of a group of vastly different actors bouncing off each other: the self-consciously method Baldwin, the edgy energy of Pollack, the chilly technique of Spacey and the classically trained professionalism of Byrne, who pulls off with aplomb a difficult job of playing a decoy protagonist and antagonist in one. And that’s not mentioning the wild card of Del Toro who, working out his character was a one-note plot device, throws in an eccentric chic and impenetrable mumbling accent that is part affectation (the sort of thing that made the actor more trying later in his career) and part jaw-dropping show of confidence. And backing them up is a collection of actors as eccentric as Palminteri channelling Law and Order with a smile and Postlethwaite as a sinister limey lawyer with an accent that sounds like it hails from the Raj.

Singer’s direction is flawlessly confident, creating a rich tapestry that you could lazily call Tarantinoesque, but actually reminds you of John Huston in its carefully framed mise-en-scene. It’s a very classical movie in its way, that loves clever wipes, slow build ups, brilliantly edited and surprisingly low key in much of its framing and shooting. Everything is perfectly placed to help build up the illusion. Singer never touched these heights of confidence and control again. It’s also superbly edited throughout by John Ottman, each beat landing perfectly, each transition perfectly judged. It wouldn’t seem out of pace to see Cagney playing Kint (with Bogart surely as Keaton). 

The devilish trickiness of the plot is kept largely under wraps until late on – Soze isn’t even mentioned until nearly halfway through the film – and the film’s confident misdirection suggests this might just be the gang aiming too high and getting burned rather than a shadowy mastermind manipulating it all. It’s a brilliantly judged change of pace, and all part of the impish delight of the film. It’s a clever game, but has more than enough force and invention in its story telling to keep you gripped time and time again. McQuarrie and Spacey won Oscars – and the film hinges so much on Spacey’s ability to both tell an anecdote and also not push his acting lame – and the film lives on forever in the memory as one of the finest twists. But it does so because the twist grows so organically from the film, and the film’s delight in tricking you is completely infectious.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)


Could Daisy Ridley be The Last Jedi in this controversial new Star Wars chapter

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (General Leia Organa), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Andy Serkis (Supreme Leader Snoke), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo), Benecio del Toro (DJ), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Frank Oz (Yoda)

Spoilers! OK I’m really trying my best to not have too many spoilers in here, but you know it’s pretty much impossible. So you should do what I do and go to the see the film knowing almost nothing about it. That would be much better than reading any reviews!

It’s pretty clear the Star Wars franchise is going to be with us for some time. So eventually it’s going to have to move past telling similar stories, with familiar characters, in very familiar settings, and branch out into something new and a bit more daring. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an attempt to do this. Is it completely successful? No, probably not. Does it try and push the franchise into a slightly new direction? Yes it does.

The film starts moments after the end of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has met with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the remote planet he has spent the past decade hiding on. She believes (as do we!) that he will train her in the ways of the Jedi – instead he tells her to leave, and firmly states that the Jedi are a failed organisation that don’t deserve to continue. Meanwhile, during a speedy evacuation of the resistance base – covered by a suicidally reckless military operation by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) that costs the lives of dozens of resistance ships and pilots – General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is incapacitated, and the surviving rebel ships find themselves relentlessly pursued by the First Order. While the new leadership of the resistance seems to be offering no alternatives, Poe and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan to travel to a distant planet and recruit a codebreaker, to help them hack into the First Order flagship and disable the tracker it’s using, allowing the fleet to escape.

The Last Jedi is a film that has had a mixed reception from the fandom. After spending a couple of days thinking about it, this might be because the film so completely inverts expectations and refuses to play it safe. It’s a film about loss and disillusionment, but also about hope against adversity. It would have been very easy to transform Luke into a new Yoda, to make Poe and Finn heroic guys whose actions save the rebellion over the heads of their stuffed-shirt commanders. To build Kylo Ren further towards a redemption arc. These are all things you could expect – none of them happen.

Subverting these expectations has angered a lot of people – fascinatingly the same people who complained The Force Awakens was too similar to Star Wars. So I guess that kinda shows you can’t keep the Internet happy – so why even try. The main issue has been the re-imaging of Luke Skywalker. The man the first trilogy presented as the universe’s bright-eyed-boy, our new hope: here he’s a bitter, depressed man who has lost hope and his love for the Jedi. He’s a man who confesses to dark thoughts, who it transpires considered acts of murder, who has failed at almost everything he’s touched since the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. This is a big turnaround for the franchise’s hero, and yes it is jarring. Is this what people expected after the end of Force Awakens? It sure ain’t.

But, after the play-it-safe Rogue One and the thrilling remember-what-you-used-to-like-before-the-prequels joy of The Force Awakens, the franchise needed something like this. A shake-up, a repositioning of the universe. It’s not always bright and hopeful, and our heroes are flawed people who make huge mistakes. It’s in many ways a logical extension: if Rey is the new hope, than something must have gone wrong with the old hope. Luke has failed totally in the same way both his mentors (Yoda and Obi-Wan) did – he encouraged and honed the viper-in-the-nest.

As that viper-in-the-nest, we’ve got the terrifically complex Kylo Ren. Ren’s path in this film is the most inverted, unexpected and unusual development in the series so far. Adam Driver was superb in Force Awakens, and he’s great here once again as a very different type of villain. Ren is strong in the force, but in almost every other way he’s hugely weak: a sullen, moody man-child, straining for greatness, a tearful brat easily led, driven by his emotions, trying to take on a mantle of greatness he is psychologically ill-equipped for. He seems barely aware of what he wants from life, except for a vague wish to pull the world down – like any teenager, angry at his parents, which is what he is.

Pulling the world down seems to be Rian Johnson’s aim as well. An early attack wipes out the resistance leadership – Admiral Ackbar! No! – and the resistance itself is eventually reduced to a single ship, desperately running from the far stronger First Order. Never mind Empire Strikes Back, the resistance has never been so pummelled, its military achievements so minor. Even their one victory in the film – the destruction of a fearsome First Order ship – carries such a huge cost of men and equipment that Leia strips Poe of his rank for even attempting it. Thereafter, the only victory the resistance can hope for is to survive. No other Star Wars film has ever allowed such monumental failure to be the main plotline for our heroes. Johnson is clearing the decks and resetting the tables – he even wraps up lingering mysteries from The Force Awakens with such abruptness you wonder if he wanted to kill parts of the Internet dead.

Failure also ekes through the Poe/Fin subplot. Every single decision these characters take in this film is wrong, misguided, hugely costly or all three. If the film does have a major flaw it’s that Finn’s journey to the gambling planet is a cul-de-sac of plot development, that could have easily hit the cutting room floor and probably cost the film very little indeed. It never really goes anywhere, other than to allow Johnson to make some points about arms traders selling weapons to both the First Order and the resistance. It also introduces into the mix Benecio del Toro’s fantastically annoying, overly-twitchy performance as the hacker DJ – Del Toro seems to be getting more and more prone to “Deppism”, where a good actor succumbs to twitches and quirks rather than acting.

What is most interesting about this plot-line though is its very pointlessness. The plan (major spoiler here) doesn’t work at all, in fact it leads to many, many, many more resistance lives being lost, and wrecks Hondo’s secret plan which would have saved everyone’s lives. The film doesn’t quite have the courage to pin the blame for this disaster directly on Poe and Finn. In fact the film gets a bit confused here about the message it wants Poe to learn – it’s something about costly actions in war not being worth mindless sacrifice, but then this is a film that at its conclusion celebrates another character making a huge sacrifice. Unclear? A bit. Anyway: the point however is: you can’t imagine previous Star Wars films allowing our characters to so completely fuck up here as Poe and Finn do – and give them no moment of triumph to make compensation later in the film. 

What this does though, is Rey to be repositioned at the real hope – although the film goes about inverting her as well, with several suggestions that she is far more open to the dark side of the force might have thought. Daisy Ridley is very good as Rey, juggling conflicting pulls on her personality, her desire to redeem both Ren (and there is a great sexual chemistry between these two) and Luke, and the different directions these desires pull her in. Rather than seeing the force as a binary good/bad thing, Rey seems to want to find a balance between the two of them. Johnson explores this via a number of visually interesting scenes, not least Rey in a cave from the dark side, full of endless reflections. It’s an unexpected re-working of the Luke/Yoda relationship and works very well.

The Last Jedi is not a perfect film. For all its interesting inversion of old tropes, and the lack of triumph it allows our characters, it’s way too long. It could easily have been cut down by half an hour at least. Although some plots are designed to be expectation-defying dead-ends, they still end up feeling less than interesting (and ripe for fast forwarding on later viewings). Despite an attempt to include some scenes of deliberate humour, the film has less spark and joie de vivre than many of the other entrances in the franchise. Structurally, it’s not always clear what the timeline of events is between the different locations (weeks seem to go past for Rey, while only hours go by in the rebel fleet), and some of the points the film wants its characters to learn are unclear or hard to understand (I genuinely don’t know what Poe was supposed to have learned by the end of this film).

Its strength though are the characters – building on the groundwork from The Force Awakens(and very differently from Rogue One) this film is full of characters we care about. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac continue to excel as Finn and Poe (and still have great chemistry, shippers…) – Boyega in particular is quite the star. Ridley and Driver are superb. Hamill was never the strongest actor in the world, but he gives his most complex performance yet as Luke. The film mostly rattles along very nicely, and has plenty of action and excitement as well as “race against time” structure that works very well. Interestingly, its main handicaps are that it defies expectations almost a little too much (so it demands second viewing and reflection) and that it’s overlong and at times unclearly structured. But as a step forward for the franchise it’s still a good thing. A new hope indeed.

Coda: The film’s main sadness is the premature death of Carrie Fisher. One problem watching the film was that two or three times I was convinced that the film was about to show us Leia’s death. Johnson avoids changing the film from its original plan (Episode IX was intended to be “The Leia film” after films focusing on Han Solo and Luke), but it does seem a shame that Fisher’s good work wasn’t crowned by the sort of iconic final scene she deserves. The Episode IX planned will now never happen – but it would have been great to see Fisher really head centre stage in that film. RIP.