1992 is an interesting year to use as a case study for movies. Looking at the top grossing movies of that year, we see Disney’s Aladdin skyrocketing to the top ($217,350,219). Following that is a mix of forgotten sequels (Home Alone: Lost in New York, $173,585,516), respectable sequels (Batman Returns, $162,831,698), and embarrassingly unnecessary sequels (Lethal Weapon 3, $144,731,527). After that, you’ve got what should serve as the prime example of overacting your way to an Oscar nomination (A Few Good Men, $141,340,178), a dreadful movie that led to the very first Pajiba April Fool’s prank (Sister Act, $139,470,392), and rounded out by the simply awful — The Bodyguard, Wayne’s World, and, God help us all, Basic Instinct. With a couple of exceptions, that is not a very good year for movies, at least popular ones. Yet in that same year, there was a wonderful, clever, insightful ensemble movie starring Robert Redford, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, Mary McDonnell, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, and David Strathairn. A movie that somehow earned less than half what the 10th-highest grossing movie of that year, and seems to be drifting further and further into obscurity with every passing year. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to this week’s Underappreciated Gem: Sneakers.
Directed by Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams, The Sum of All Fears), Sneakers is about a group of techno-geeks who make their living by “sneaking” into corporate security systems to find any weaknesses. There’s a beautiful bit of expository dialogue after the opening scene where someone asks ringleader Martin Bishop (Redford), “So, people hire you to break into their places… to make sure no one can break into their places?” “It’s a living,” he responds. Which it is — the perfect living for a group of ex-convicts, ex-government agents and misfits who can’t seem to find a part of society to fit in. The foremost of them is Bishop, who after a brush with the law in his college years fled the scene of a crime and changed his name, living on the edge of society ever since. His band of hi-tech merry men include the paranoid conspiracy theorist Mother (Aykroyd); ex-CIA agent and straight man Crease (Poitier); Whistler, a brilliant blind man with Daredevil-like hearing (Strathairn); and the awkward, gawky Carl (Phoenix). They make their living finding holes in systems, while simultaneously doing their best to fall through the holes in society, trying to stay unnoticed.
Things all change when two men, Dick (Timothy Busfield — Danny from “The West Wing,” playing well against type) and Buddy (Eddie Jones, Fighting Tommy Riley) come in asking them to steal a “black box” capable of threatening U.S. national security if it falls into the wrong hands. The box has been developed by an eccentric mathematician named Janek (Donal Logue — The Tao of Steve, Blade… trust me, OK? It works). In truth, the box is mainly a MacGuffin, simply there to set the events in motion. Bishop enlists the help of old flame Liz (McDonnell) to help him get close to Janek, and through a clever combination of gadgetry and subterfuge, Bishop steals the box. Unfortunately, once they get it back to their headquarters, they realize the box is much more dangerous than they thought, that Dick and Buddy aren’t who they claimed to be, and they have opened up a Pandora’s Box (ouch… sorry) that they can no longer close. Eventually, this leads to a confrontation with an old acquaintance of Bishop’s, Cosmo (Kingsley), a techno-anarchist intent on using the box to bring down the world’s infrastructure, hoping to cause societal collapse and the birth of a new, uncharted era. Cosmo is willing to do anything, even kill his old friend, to achieve his goals.
The plot of Sneakers is sharp — the technology went out of date probably less than two years after it came out, but because the writing is so good, you barely even notice it (DOS-based computer systems notwithstanding). This is mainly due to a brisk pace, intricate plotting, and excellent acting. The pace of the film moves things along, explaining enough so that it makes sense but not bogging it down with excessive blather. Everything you need to know is laid out quickly and evenly, using key scenes to provide background and motivational information for each character. The plot is full of surprises (which I’m hesitant to give away here) and while some of the twists are telegraphed a bit, they ultimately still satisfy. The movement of the story itself is part of the performance — a reliance on anagrams, puzzle-solving and deftly designed clues engage the viewer into wanting to find the answer to the movie’s secrets. Finally, the film carries with it some interesting foreshadowing, both in movies and politics, that we’ll get to in a bit.
Much like films such as Ocean’s Eleven, the cast is what sells the movie. One can’t help but feel that Soderbergh’s Ocean’s films drew some inspiration from Sneakers — they’re both clever, funny, non-violent heist films. They both feature an on-the-run leading man, with a scorned woman that was left in the wake of his poor life choices. They both have quiet, charismatic villains. Ensemble pieces like this feel like they come along rarely, so when is executed so skillfully it seems appropriate to give it your full attention. It’s hard to imagine that a movie with such an amazing ensemble came and went quietly, but that’s how I remember it. (It was also beaten by Beethoven, Under Siege, Boomerang, and Honey I Blew Up the Kid.)
Simply put, the performances are riveting. It’s full of the type of wry, laconic dialogue that makes the people on screen actually seem real. Bishop’s team is like a mildly dysfunctional family — they’re sometimes too close to each other, so they get on each others nerves, they rib each other and bicker. But they also clearly care for one another, and despite their secrets — if there’s one thing this movie teaches us, it’s that everyone has secrets — they risk everything when one of their own is in jeopardy. It’s hard to believe, given the preponderance of acting juggernauts such as Redford, Poitier and Kinglsey, but for the most part the remaining actors are given ample time to flex their own abilities. River Phoenix’s sweet yet goofy misfit is sadly given less time that I would have liked, but perhaps that’s just because I always find myself wishing that there was more of him to be seen in general, not just here. David Strathairn, one of the most under-utilized actors of his generation, plays Whistler as a sly genius that Bishop finds himself turning to more than the others. Dan Aykryod plays Dan Aykroyd for the most part, but it’s him at his best, giving a smart-mouthed, adroit performance that reminds us that Aykroyd at his best (The Blues Brothers, Grosse Pointe Blank) is still a comedic force. His repartee with Poitier’s Crease, wherein he constantly brings up outlandish conspiracies partially due to his own deranged paranoia, and partially just to rile him up, is particularly effective, not to mention damn funny (“Cattle mutilations are up!”). The others — Kingsley, Redford, McDonnell and Poitier — are simply amazing to watch as always. McDonnell’s Liz is the type of eye-rolling, patient mother figure that this group of lost boys wandering through their technological Never-Never Land so desperately needs. Poitier is full of a calm intensity — he’s quiet, he’s the only married, stable-seeming one, but he loses his cool at Mother repeatedly, and eventually shows his true, badass potential.
Redford and Kingsley are both excellent, but then, they’re excellent in everything (Bloodrayne and Thunderbirds never happened, you hear me? NEVER HAPPENED). Redford has that twinkly-eyed intelligence that’s so alluring, and Kingsley is always so goddamn fierce that you feel like he’s in the room with you. This isn’t on par with, say, Sexy Beast, where every time he looked towards the camera I flinched. Instead, he plays the megalomaniacal, chaos-loving Cosmo with a surprising amount of reserve. It’s the kind of role that, given to a lesser actor, would have resulted in some serious, and grossly misplaced, scene chewing. Instead, Cosmo is quiet, intense and focused on his mission — the kind of restrained zealotry that is actually disturbing on a much deeper level. The scenes the two of them share, however, are nothing short of fantastic. They are brief and sparsely set, but filled to the brim with emotion — conveying the long, hard relationship the two characters have had, and somehow quietly showing you how they reached this now-adversarial point. The sets are designed to force you to concentrate on them — barely anything happens in the backgrounds, letting the two virtuosos fill the screen instead.
Sneakers also has a surprisingly subversive agenda: Cosmo, despite clearly being somewhat crazy, makes some effective points about the nature of money and systems and the effect on people. It’s hard to argue with points like this: “Pollution. Crime. Drugs, poverty, disease, hunger, despair; we throw GOBS of money at them and problems only get worse. Why is that? Because money’s most powerful ability is to allow bad people to continue doing bad things at the expense of those who don’t have it.” Cosmo sees himself as a revolutionary, and Bishop can’t help but agree with the fundamental premise of his argument — it’s his tactics they disagree on. But the movie makes a powerful and prescient statement about government invasiveness, the dark nature of agencies such as the CIA and NSA and the effect that they have not just on other countries, but our own as well. Perhaps my favorite creepy moment of foreshadowing is when Bishop encounters a homeless man asking for change and complaining about the government. Bishop sardonically replies, “Talk to him,” while pointing to a poster of George Bush 1.0. It’s a moment that brought out a chuckle at the time, but has a whole new implication now.
Sneakers is one of the more tragically overlooked films of the 1990s. It’s the kind of smarter-than-you-think, subtle filmmaking that can easily get lost among the explosions and cheap laughs that pervade so many popular movies. While it lacks the glitzy veneer of ensemble movies like Ocean’s Eleven, it’s overall a better movie with better performances. It manages to make some important statements about how we view money, structure, society and the ways we can sometimes even accidentally affect the future. The ending… I refuse to give away the very end, but it is nothing short of delicious — I guarantee you’ll find yourself grinning uncontrollably during the final scenes. Regardless, Sneakers is one of the rare, near-flawless movies. Sure, some of the technophiles among you might be able to quibble about the technology, but it’s 16 years old — cut it some slack. Every single performance is a success (I haven’t even talked about the sublimely dorky Stephen Tobolowsky), and by the end, you wish it would just keep going, just so you could watch the actors work. 1992 was quite a year for films, but one of the gems of that year somehow disappeared. Well, I say screw that. Polish this one off and enjoy yourself.
TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination over at Uncooked Meat.
Sneakers / TK
Underappreciated Gems | May 15, 2008 | Comments ()