‘Sneakers’ – ’92 Cinema Revue

Sneakers – #1 in the US (Sept. 11 – 13)

All-Time Domestic: $51,432,691 | International: $53,800,000
All-Time Worldwide $105,232,691

Sneakers combines the thrills of spy and heist films with great laughs along the way, led by one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled.

When it comes to star-studded ensemble casts, there comes a risk of far too many egos clashing. There can be prima donna antics or lack of chemistry that plague the film. A bevy of talent also cannot save a movie from stinking, no matter how many zeroes are on a check. Double for a heist or spy film. If the team is not believable, the audience will fail to accept them. A great cast must involve camaraderie with the feeling everyone has known each other for years. Sneakers is a film devoid of these problems.

Everyone in the main cast has either been nominated or won a prolific award for their acting in 1992. David Strathairn gets his nomination later for the terrific turn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck. The cast list reads like a whose-whose of Hollywood at that time, from the dramatic to comedic. Director Phil Alden Robinson manages the task of directing the cast like another day at the office. Then again, Robinson worked with a hefty cast in Field of Dreams, making him the man for the job. Not bad for a guy who signed on solely to work with Redford.

Martin Brice (Redford) is the leader of a group of so-called experts at breaking businesses to ensure their security is up to code in San Francisco. The team includes electronics expert and resident conspiracy theorist “Mother” (Dan Akroyd), former CIA agent Donald (Poitier), blind telecommunications experts Whistler (Strathairn), and young thief Carl (River Phoenix). The National Security Agency calls upon Brice to help gain back a device. Brice accepts the job for the team due to the promise of a big payday. He calls former team member and ex-girlfriend Liz (Mary McDonnell) to help with the biggest job of their lives. Yet, once dangers emerge from Ben Kingsley’s character, the team wonders if holding on to the device is worth the effort and lives.

Sneakers combines the thrills of spy and heist films with great laughs, led by one of the best ensemble casts ever assembled. Redford as Martin is a great choice, being the one holding the team together like glue. He has the most longevity in the group in his codebreaking methods and B&E skills. He also handles humor with the best of them. I haven’t seen much of Redford’s works (revoke my invisible critic license now), but when I do, Redford has this magnetism that is hard to escape. With him as our prominent leader, it makes all the others under his wing feel hand-picked and selected by him—game recognizing game. 

And no one slouches here, either. The late great Poitier is holding his own, being his charismatic and stoic self. Akroyd brings a more reigned-in comedic, though his conspiracy act is much closer to his real persona. Given Nothing But Trouble’s damaging critical and commercial failure the year prior, Akroyd needed a win. Phoenix is perfect, being the crew’s youngest member yet meshing perfectly with the others. No one talks down to him or treats him as lesser, making him worthy of the A-list treatment. It’s always bittersweet seeing Pheonix on film. This one hit a bit more, knowing that Phoenix would pass away at only 23 years old the following year after this film. Statham plays Whistler as a person rather than a caricature which is terrific given a seeing actor portraying the blind can be hit-or-miss. His character has one of the best scenes in the film, using only his hearing to navigate from one place to the other. McDonnell is fantastic, too. Her fake date with Stephen Tobolowsky (there he is again) is great fun; she even commits to getting more information with a second fake date. Also, I was admittedly smitten with McDonnell once she appeared. Same with Strathairn. I know what I’m about, friends.

Whistler (David Strathairn) discovers the secrets behind the Setec Astronomy device.
Source: Universal Pictures

The story allows the best parts of heist films to play with the best features of spy films. Outside of a quick prologue, the film’s opening on a heist hints at how everyone is excellent at working together without having to crack too wise at one another. There are no winks to the camera or battle of wits, but rather, friends trying to get things done right. That and playing to the strengths of each character makes heist films work. Accepting that a character is good at something rather than seeing it in action would be boring. Thank the screenwriters that there are multiple opportunities to see them in action. The spy thrills come in everyone after the MacGuffin, the elusive Setec Astronomy codebreaker. After seeing what it does, no wonder everyone wants it from fake NSA agents, actual NSA agents, Russian spies, and Martin’s past. 

Ben Kingsley is a walking spoiler, with his character reveal being the one cliched part of the film. Skip a few lines to avoid spoilers, but as Cosmo, a former classmate and friend to Martin, Kingsley does a great job. He gives a polite menace to him, not wanting to end a former colleague. Instead, he plays it as someone hurt and tries to pick up the pieces. That’s a given, though, as when Cosmo was arrested for codebreaking in college, Martin left to get a pizza, avoiding the arrest and moving to Canada. He has a fragility to him but can be an asshole. Think Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye but not a complete piece of crap. Cosmo, as a character, would fit in easily with a Bond villain from the Craig era.

The Sneakers crew from left to right: The young thief Carl (River Phoenix), the electronics expert “Mother” (Dan Aykroyd), the ex-CIA agent Donald (Sidney Poitier), the leader Martin (Robert Redford), and the blind telecommunications expert Whistler (David Strathairn).

The humor is fun and helps to give levity to the film. There is an excellent back-and-forth between Poitier and Aykroyd (this is a sentence that exists in this timeline, and it feels wrong). Redford gets a scene with Whistler in his ear telling him to fake a story, with Redford stumbling throughout with a look that says, “oh, for f*** sake.” Tobowlosky’s brief moment as the victim of the fake date is fun and better than the sleazeball he was in Single White Female. The funniest part of the film is the film’s final scene, with everyone on the team giving their respective demands and wishes to an NSA agent in exchange for the codebreaking device. I won’t give you that spoiler because the surprise appearance is worth seeing for yourself, only adding to the film’s cast pedigree. Carl’s demand is the best one, making me chuckle like an idiot to see it occur in real time.

Sneakers is my favorite first-time watch of the films so far in this series. After it ended, I thought to myself, “I think I love this movie.” Although, after writing this review, I don’t think I do; I know I do. Sneakers is a timeless film that manages to deliver on all fronts with only one detriment docking it down. It’s worth your time to see it for the first time. If you’ve seen it before, I suggest you see it again.

Revue Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Next time, a film made only on a budget of around $7,000 made a big splash at the 1992 Toronto International Film Festival, changing Robert Rodriguez’s life forever. It’s El Mariachi.

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