Sneakers (1992) — A cinematic dream team

“This isn’t a date, dummy. It’s a scientific exploration.”

Justin’s rating: This movie has come up with the only good reason to study mathematics — it drives some women crazy.

Justin’s review: As a guy, we never want to face the fact that some day — out in that distant, sterile land called the “future” — we’ll have to become mature. This creates problems with our career choices, because we really just want to play video games and watch movies and figure out new games for Dorito fragments. But when women and parents and guidance counselors press us to become greater and seize our destiny, it results in a very immature guy as PRESIDENT OF THE FREE WORLD. Would it really have been that hard just to let him stay at home, using his belly as a substitute plate for macaroni and cheese?

While most of us end up with fairly uninteresting jobs, I always thought it would be cool to do what McGuyver did, working at the Phoenix Foundation, whose sole purpose was to fly around the world and stick their noses into other people’s business. And imagine my dismay when I discovered that the Phoenix Foundation doesn’t exist! I suppose the second-best thing would be to get your best guy buddies together and form a company with a cool office. And then all you’d have to do to get paid would be sneaking around, playing covert ops, breaking into high-tech firms — and then GETTING PAID FOR IT! Hoo-boy, what a life that would be! And finally, boys and girls, the movie review.

Sneakers is not, as some assume, a documentary about the rise and fall of the Reebok corporation. Instead, it’s about a dude named Martin Bishop, who has an uncanny resemblance to Robert Redford. Bishop’s been on the run from the law since he nearly got caught in the early days of computer hacking (the late ’60s, back when you had to make those modem connection sounds with your own voice: “RRRRRrrrrrrrSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”).

As a fugitive, Bishop gathered together a questionable bunch of morally-challenged tech hounds, and thus became “sneakers.” A sneaker is skilled in the art of breaking past security systems for the purpose of showing companies where their weak spots are. This team include ex-CIA Crease (Sidney Poitier), blind sound expert Whistler (David Strathairn), extremely paranoid Mother (Dan Aykroyd), young spunky Carl (River Phoenix), and Liz (Mary McDonnell), an ex-girlfriend of Bishop’s who is the team’s only link to the feminine world.

This is one of those rare movies where the cast does not just contain one or two decent actors but a full deck of them. This ensembles gels in a fashion that’s incredibly fun to watch. There’s a lot of banter passed back and forth, such as when Mother is trying to convince Crease that the Apollo landing happened on a Hollywood sound stage.

This being pre-Internet, most of the high-tech stuff has to do with more physical concepts: wires, infrared sensors, cryptography machines. You see, during the course of one mission, the sneakers stumble upon a small machine that has the power to crack codes — ANY codes. This theme of encrypting and decrypting is run through the entire movie (including the opening credits, which form anagrams with the actors’ names). Now every world government and some private organizations want to get their hands on this box, and it’s near certain that when that happens, our boys club will be adios.

The worst enemy they encounter is Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), who was Martin’s friend in the ’60s, and unlike Martin, ended up getting caught. Now he’s bitter and full of long-winded speeches and self-delusion. I like Kingsley as a general rule, but in my mind, he’s a Good Guy. My mind likes to try to form coherent connections between movies, so for some reason I have a hard time accepting a traditional Good Guy in a Bad Guy role (and vice versa). I’m weird that way.

Up to the final moments, this film plays a solid crime caper/spy movie vibe. There are quite a few cool tricks the sneakers pull, the twists are abundant, and it’s one of those movies that emphasize the power of mind over brawn.

Still, Sneakers is also enriched with the flour of laughter (oh my, how my mastery of the English language increases). It’s nothing outright satirical, but it does go back to the theme of men being thinly-veiled boys all along. These guys may be neck-deep in international intrigue, but they gleefully pull pranks, one-up each other, and encourage the sightless to take driving lessons.

Redford does an excellent job (did I just say that?) with the simple way he masters his facial expressions in response to his much-more immature team. If you’ve seen this, you know the scene where Martin is getting lines fed to him via an earpiece, and he gets to saying the lines without realizing what the guys are feeding him. He catches one particular dirty word, stutters over it, and emotions cross his face along the vein of “I’m going to take a hacksaw to each of their necks when they fall asleep.”

Sneakers is literally one-of-a-kind in the movie world. Not only good to the last drop, it covers that small slice of time right before the World Wide Web went big in the technology world, it has River Phoenix (an actor cut down before his prime), and they managed to bag Aykroyd, Redford, Poitier, and even James Earl Jones (“Simbahhhhh”) to create a cinematic dream team. There are hundreds of great details peppered throughout the flick, such as how the opening break-in leaves it ambiguous whether these guys are criminals or not. If it was up to me, a copy of Sneakers would come in every cereal box.

Andie’s rating: If River Phoenix wanted my phone number, he wouldn’t have to ask twice

Andie’s review: Okay, so Sneakers came out when I was in 6th grade. My mom and my brother saw it and told me it was great. Then my friends Steve and Braden saw it and said it was great. But I was convinced it was a techno-weenie computer movie and that I was too cool to like it, so I refused to see it. The years went by and I just never happened to watch it. So I come to college and my friend Jason owns Sneakers and can’t believe I’ve never seen it. So, under much duress, I sit down with him one night and we watch it. And, surprise surprise, I end up loving it. (I’m still too cool for a lot of things, but this was a great movie)

First off, I could not believe the stellar casting they have in this movie! I have always been a big fan of Dan Ackroyd and as I got older, I realized how awesome and totally hot Robert Redford is. What an enduring sex symbol. (sigh) Sydney Poitier is wonderful and River Phoenix is an amazing actor who was taken away from us far too soon. (He’s also very good looking) But for me, the standout is David Straithairn as Whistler. I think his character is great and hilarious and I’m totally in love with the actor. I think he is so sexy. I loved him in A League of Their Own and L.A. Confidential. yummy.

Okay, so now that I’ve gotten all my hormonal comments out in the open, I’ll talk about the movie a little. The reason this movie is so great is because it’s a tightly wound mystery that is also extremely funny. I think the premise of the characters’ line of work is great (how do I get a job getting paid to break into places?) and I also like the idea of the “little black box” falling into the wrong hands.

I also think the climax is fantastic because there are so many suspenseful aspects. Robert Redford can only move two inches per second and the bad guys are coming and they’ve got guns and now the blind guy has to drive the van and then Ben Kingsley makes one final stab at getting Robert Redford and AHHHHHHH it’s just so tense. And then James Earl Jones comes along, which automatically makes for a good movie because he has a cool voice. And I love the guys’ requests for stuff, River Phoenix is the cutest.

So anyway, take it from an original anti-Sneakers person, this is a fantastic movie and there’s something great for everybody. Drama, action, suspense, romance, and excellent humor. And peace on earth and good will towards men.

PoolMan’s rating: We’re manure, it’s TV. Traverse menu wit. Revenue swim tart.

PoolMan’s review: Although I know I risk the Wrath of Kyle (KYYYYYYYYYYLE!!!) by saying this, James Bond is just not the cool customer he used to be. Let’s be honest, although his capture finally put a dent in his invulnerable image in Die Another Day, the guy basically suffers from the same lack of dramatic tension Justin mentioned about Neo in his review of Matrix Reloaded. In the Bond universe, 007 is basically invulnerable; the movies basically work to ensure that although he always appears to be in danger, he always survives. After 20 Bond flicks, it’s getting harder and harder to believe Bond can ever be in real trouble, and a super spy who’s never in danger just doesn’t hold any appeal.

What makes Sneakers work so darn well is that although the characters are super cool, they’re always just barely in control of their situation. These heroes don’t run around with guns drawn doing impossible bullet time acrobatics, shooting without getting shot. Oh heavens no. Bishop (Robert Redford) has so many lines on his face he resembles the beach at low tide. Whistler (David Straithairn) is at his best in a pitch black room. We can’t for the life of us figure out how Mother (Dan Aykroyd) doesn’t just drop dead of a cheese sandwich attack. These guys are, as a team, capable of truly cool things, but they’re not action heroes. They’re just guys. Heck, the one time one of them does something physically demanding (Carl leaping down through the ceiling at a gunman), he complains about how difficult it was.

That’s part of the big appeal of Sneakers. Although these guys have the coolest white hat job in the world, they still seem like regular Joes (or, if you’re Canadian, Gordies). It’s the circumstances around them, and the way they react that makes them cool. This is basically a heist flick. The good guys have to set up an elaborate way of retrieving a valuable object from a bad guy, who turns out to be the long lost evil friend of the lead character. There’s twists and turns and robotic dogs, but mostly, that’s it.

The thing that REALLY makes Sneakers work, though, is the great cast. Aside from those mentioned above, you’ve also got Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, and James Earl Jones. This is practically the definition of what Entertainment Tonight ditzily refers to as “star-studded”, people. It’s a phenomenal cast, so much so that you’re pretty willing to overlook a somewhat weak climax and an ending so soft you could sleep on it. The chemistry here is just so great… you’d never think Dan Aykroyd could jive with Robert Redford the way he does with Bill Murray, but there it is!

All in all, I like this movie. It’s fun, it’s creative, and although it’s technologically dated (at the time, it was a groundbreaker to have a speech about information meaning power, and little “ones and zeroes”, but not so much these days), it’s got smarts and style without being flashy. Great evening waster (and I mean that in the best way possible, honest!).

Didja notice?

  • Anagrams, anagrams, anagrams!
  • The looks Crease and Marty give to Carl when Carl’s smearing camo makeup on his face
  • When the guards detain the Crease and Mother in the van, why don’t they search the van itself (which would have revealed Whistler hiding)? They don’t even look in the back!
  • Okay, so Cosmo figures out he’s been swindled. Why doesn’t he just shoot Bishop on ladder? He’s got oodles of time!
  • In keeping with film tradition (and his contract, no doubt), Sidney Poitier gets a scene in which his character flashes the Ol’ Crazy Eyes when he gets called a racial slur.
  • Yeah, Cosmo? Ease up on the cream cheese in the ponytail there, champ. Thanks.

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