Sneakers: the finest crime caper movie of the 1990s?

Feature Simon Brew 28 Aug 2013 - 05:51

More than 20 years old it may be, but time has been unusually kind to the hacker caper thriller Sneakers, Simon writes...

Proverbial cards on the proverbial table: I love Sneakers. I'm a big fan of caper movies at the best of times, but this one's always been a favourite. There's an easy charm, an absence of nastiness, and a sheer sense of fun in here that's always appealed to me. Plus, it doesn't matter how many times I watch it, it doesn't feel dated. Even though it clearly is.

However, I've got to share two bugbears first. I don't like to start on negatives, but these moments really get me every time, and very slightly sully an otherwise stupendous Sneakers soup. Guttingly, both moments unfortunately involve Ned Rierson himself, the marvellous Stephen Toblowsky, in a cameo role that pops up towards the end of the film.

Firstly, straight from the same spellbook that would go on to cast a cougar into the midst of 24 season two, there's the moment where a voice-activated toy animal is accidentally triggered, and walks forward on a table. Then, it knocks Liz's (played by Mary McDonnell) handbag to the floor. There, Toblowsky's nerdy computer expert discovers she's nicked his ID. That's the only point at which an intricate plot - involving Toblowsky's sexiest ever on-screen uttering of the word 'passport' - suddenly starts to unravel. Because of an accidental triggering of a toy animal. Pixar's storytelling rules dictate that you can use coincidence to get into a plot point, but not to get out of it. Sneakers does, and it feels wrong.

Secondly, McDonnell, just as she seems to have got away with her part of the deception, unnecessarily remarks that it's the last time she tries computer dating. This then alerts Cosmo (played by Sir Ben Kingsley, nee Ben Kingsley) to the fact that all isn't well. But why would she say that? I've still no idea, but again, how else was Cosmo going to rumble the intricate ruse? It feels like the last minute suggestion at a script conference. Given how tight the rest of the screenplay feels, these two moments inevitably jar.

The Origins

I mention those two things up front, because most of what you're going to read from this point on is going to be a fawningly upbeat appreciation of a movie that I rank as possibly the finest mainstream caper movie of the 90s. Steven Soderbergh would score a big hit with Ocean's 11 about a decade later, but for an ensemble tackling a daring heist of sorts, Sneakers, I'd argue, is a better place to start. It was brilliant, it's still brilliant.

For a film about then-modern technology, it's perhaps surprising that Sneakers took so long to cook up (certainly technology had progressed some distance while the movie was in gestation). The film emanates from the brains of Lawrence Lasker and Walter F Parkes, and the story goes that they came up with the idea while working on WarGames back at the start of the 80s. It was reportedly one of a pair of ideas that Lasker was working on at the time - the other would become Robin Williams/Robert De Niro drama Awakenings - and it took a good while to pull together.

Parkers and Lasker worked on a screenplay, but the catalyst for the film moving forward was when Robert Redford agreed to take on the central role of Martin Bishop. At that stage, a once-reluctant Phil Alden Robinson suddenly became a lot more interested in the film (if Redford wasn't on board, it's doubtful Alden Robinson would have been). His movie Field Of Dreams would go on to win much acclaim, but Robinson's directorial output has always been sporadic (his writing is a lot more prolific). He ultimately signed up to direct Sneakers though, and reworked the screenplay as well.

That all makes it sounds a lot quicker than it was, though. The notoriously diligent Phil Alden Robinson spent just shy of ten years himself getting Sneakers into shape and onto cinema screens. It would be some time before his next directorial feature too, the hugely underrated Jack Ryan flick, The Sum Of All Fears. That would follow a decade later.

Personnel

Back to Sneakers though, and the involvement of brilliant people attracted even more. Much of the fun with Sneakers is the brilliant combination of acting talent that seemed to jigsaw together quite wonderfully. Just take a look at Sidney Poiter here; as former CIA agent Crease, he gets to be the voice of reason, but he's clearly very much in on the fun (he plays particularly well against Redford, and it's a pity we've not seen this pairing on screen together more often).

Dan Aykroyd, too, has rarely been better (perhaps outside of Gross Pointe Blank) as Whistler, whose paranoid theories get wilder and wilder - and more fun - as the film progresses. David Strathairn, meanwhile, may not always come across as the world's most convincing blind man, but he wears a suitably impressive pair of reflective  glasses, and turns in his usual excellent work.

Perhaps River Phoenix is the one ever so slightly short-changed by the script, with his character one of the very few not to have the same deep interesting reason for being there (although he does get a really sweet moment at the end). After all, Sneakers is a film that treats each of its characters with respect, and endeavours to give each of them a suitable moment in the spotlight. Even Mary McDonnell, as Liz, is fleshed out more than you originally suspect she might be. She can't half dance, too.

There's also the small matter of Sir Ben Kingsley, who doesn't appear - at least out of lots of make-up - until the back part of the film. But the fact that Redford and Kingsley are friends who circumstances pulled apart is established well, properly and diligently. It might not be a surprise when Kingsley's involvement is revealed later in the film, but - and how often do we say this in mainstream films? - it feels plausible and believable. You can understand why both Redford and Kingsley's characters choose to do what they do in the film. Someone, basically, bothered to get the details right.

And details are to be found throughout Sneakers. Just look at a few of the references that the film is buzzing with, some more overt than others. If you go through Redford's back catalogue alone, you'll find nods to the likes of The Natural and Three Days Of The Condor in here, and for the ultra-nerdy, the infamous Cap'n Crunch free whistle, a catalyst in phone phreaking, is also referenced. There are lots more if you're happy to go digging.

Ultimately, though, it's Robert Redford that grounds the ensemble. There's a generosity to his performance, and an easy, warm charm to a slightly more complex character than first appears. He may be the big movie star here, but his willingness to share the screen, and surrender the better moments to his colleagues, is both to Redford's credit and the film's ultimate benefit. Seriously: who else could you imagine in such a starring role, underplaying the star factor quite so well?

Technology

There's inevitably a danger in portraying any kind of cutting edge technology on screen, but here again, Sneakers prevails.

Arguably the most dated film of the 90s is Disclosure, which we looked at in more detail here.

The problem with Disclosure was that it wrapped then-contemporary technology around pretty much everything that it did. As such, when Michael Douglas gets an e-mail, it stops just short of sending a marching band through his living room to tell him.

Sneakers' technology looks and feels just as dated. And yet, paradoxically, it doesn't. By using the technology it needs to tell its story, and not over-egging it, Sneakers feels far more current than it should, even though the screens looks old and the modems take ages to do anything. It's a film about characters first, gadgets second.

That said, the sequence where the group follow a potential trace as they try and negotiate on the phone remains extremely tense, and very well done. Computer graphics, along with some excellent James Horner music, manage to up the tension several notches. Interestingly, Sneakers was one of the very first films - if not the first - to send an electronic press kit to journalists ahead of the release of the film, with movie hacks getting the film's key information on a floppy disk. Remember them?

Action And Humour

Sneakers also has one of the slowest yet exciting action sequences of the decade. Unable to move beyond the pace of a snail else alarms will go off, Robert Redford has to cross a room as people close in from the outside. Contrasted with the fast, zooming action sequences of modern cinema, Sneakers feels like a breath of fresh air here. It's no less exciting, yet you can see and follow absolutely everything that's going on. An action sequence that's extra exciting because it's so slow? It'll never catch on. Oh, hang on, it didn't.

Back to the film though, and there's a playful sense of fun to it right the way through, and Alden Robinson balances the tone so that harsh edges never really, if you will, sneak in. Instead, he lashes the film with light humour, not least when Stephen Toblowsky turns up in his excellent, scene-steaing cameo (not for nothing has the actor described it as one of the most fun movie sets he's ever been on).

That said, the sparks between the talented and generous ensemble generate no shortage of fun. While it's Redford's name at the top of the tin, it's by no means his film alone, and even the smaller roles feel like they have substance to them,

Hacking

The aforementioned disciplined approach to technology also helps Sneakers get away with its approach to hacking. This is, inevitably, where the film does feel dated. Nothing that the team attempt in the film couldn't be done, at least in theory, from a cheap laptop now. Heck, you might even find the parts for the mysterious black box that's pivotal to the film in PC World. Not that the bloody thing would work.

But still: it's hard to think of a film since Sneakers that's done hacking anywhere near as well. The likes of Hackers got distracted by visual pizzazz, while Swordfish - a film that gets worse with every viewing - does anything to avoid having to hammer in on a half decent story. Sneakers, though, feels bizarrely timeless. It's not about the hacking again, it's about the people doing it. The methodology is secondary.

To its credit, the film also ends on a high. It's a brilliant, light denouement. The moment where Redford's crew individually come up with their wishlist for James Earl Jones (in a cameo, having previously appeared in Field Of Dreams; you'll probably recognise Timothy Busfield from) was aped to an extent in Armageddon, but Sneakers got its towel on the sun lounger first.

There's no radical reason why Sneakers worked, and continues to work. It's a well written, well directed and well played film that, with the exception of the two moments at the top, feels like it makes sense. It doesn't bother me that it does or doesn't when you look close up, because I never doubt it while I'm watching it. Also: more action thrillers should have a Scrabble board as an integral plot device. Just saying.

Standing tall at over 21 years old, Sneakers is a real treat, one that proves that old fashioned values can form a delightful contemporary film. It's almost a shame that we never got to meet up with the crew again for another sneak...

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