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Case Number 00161

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Sneakers

Universal // 1992 // 125 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // October 25th, 1999

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All Rise...

Editor's Note

Our review of Sneakers (HD DVD), published June 28th, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

We could tell you what it's about. But then, of course, we would have to kill you.

Opening Statement

Sneakers is the sort of movie that you end up being able to watch over and over again, not because it is the best of its kind, but because it has a stellar cast of acting talent with a script that is a deft mix of humor, action, tension, and seriousness.

The Evidence

Some movies are made or destroyed at the casting stage. Sneakers is a movie that got lucky, because a cast with lesser acting skills would have doomed it from the start. It's not an action picture, a drama, or a comedy, or even a modern high-tech thriller, but a leisurely paced amalgamation of all of these, with a little X-Files-ish governmental paranoia thrown in for spice. There are moments of suspense and tension, but there are none of the big-budget effects bonanzas to blast you awake and flood your eyes with rapid-fire images. As a result, if the cast does not draw you in, make you marvel at their performances, smile at their jokes, and feel for their characters, then you may be in danger of being bored.

Fortunately, the right choices got made here. I am sure that a significant degree of credit needs to go to writer/producers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, as both Sneakers and their previous collaboration, Wargames, show their talent for conveying technology-based stories in a very human and effective fashion. The ensemble cast is another success on their part, filled with very seriously hard-working actors whose synthesis creates a performance that is even better than the sum of its parts. You know they have done a good job when I realized how much I liked Robert Redford and River Phoenix here, whose movies I might ordinarily have given a pass. The ensemble is at a uniformly excellent level, but I must note special kudos for Sidney Poitier, as a fiercely menacing man cloaked in a genial exterior, and Mary McDonnell, who holds her own as a mature, intelligent, and attractive woman amidst all the male nerds, geeks, and weirdoes.

So that you can judge for yourself, let me tell you how we get there from here.

The opening credits are quite ingenious, using amusing anagrams to begin introducing the crew and cast to us, with the credits as a whole an effective tool in setting the style and mood of the movie to come. We begin one snowy night in December 1969 with two college students, Cosmo and Martin. A political prank involving transfers of funds to deserving left-wing causes ends with humorless disaster for Cosmo in the hands of unamused police and with Martin escaping into the wind. Waking from his dream of a troubled past, Martin Bishop gets to work.

Martin Bishop runs a small business that is hired to break into places in order to tell them how to prevent people from breaking into their places. His oddball team includes short-tempered ex-CIA man Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), a blind audio and technology savant named Erwin "Whistler" Emory (David Strathairn), paranoid, conspiracy-minded B&E genius named "Mother" (Dan Aykroyd), and Carl (River Phoenix), a budding hacker prodigy. With seeming ease, they sneak their way past the defenses of Centurian Bank and electronically heist a cool $100,000. The next day, Bishop gives the bad news to the bankers and collects their fee.

It's a living, but as a secretary comments, "not a very good one." So, when Dick Gordon (Timothy Busfield) and Buddy Wallace (Eddie Jones) show up as expensively shod customers, you can hear the saliva flowing. The smell of money becomes the smell of fear when the men flash National Security Agency (NSA) badges and make it clear that they know Martin Bishop's, or, rather, Martin Brice's fugitive past. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Martin Bishop/Martin Brice agrees that his group will work for the NSA to steal an unknown black box. This gadget is the creation of Dr. Janek (Donal Logue), a math whiz who may have created this ominous item for a less than friendly foreign government.

Enlisting the equally reluctant help of an old flame, Liz (Mary McDonnell), Martin sets to work. Scouting the man and his work at the university, Martin runs into old friend Gregor (George Hearn), a Russian diplomat/spy whose interest in Dr. Janek's lecture is purely professional. The good doctor leads Martin's team to his workshop, where the group sets to work figuring how to steal the mysterious black box. When the amorous interventions of Doctor Rhyzkov (Lee Garlington) give them a vital clue, the stage is set for another exhibition of technical wizardry, misdirection, and quick thinking by our heroes as they slip past locks, guards, and barriers. The box is safely spirited out of the building, and the team relaxes in the belief that they have not only saved their friend Martin from prison but made themselves a tidy sum.

Thrills turn to chills when Whistler discovers in the midst of celebration that this black box is the ultimate code breaker, allowing access to everything from the North American power grid, to the Federal Reserve, and on and on. As Donald Crease puts it, "there's not a government on this planet that wouldn't kill us all for that thing." When Bishop learns at the very last minute that Dr. Janek was murdered the previous night, he runs away from the handoff with the NSA agents and the fun begins.

Not only were the agents not NSA and their whole set-up a front, but Dr. Janek was in fact working for the NSA! The group is on the verge of panic, and Bishop is compelled to seek help from his Russian pal. Gregor does his best, but matters go really to hell, leaving Gregor murdered with Bishop's gun and Bishop kidnapped by mysterious figures.

Martin awakens to meet his old friend Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), now much older, and not the same friend he used to know. Acting for certain criminal interests ("Don't kid yourself, they're not that organized," he quips), Cosmo obtained Janek's black box, ostensibly to prevent the government from reading the mob's mail. His real purpose is to cause economic chaos and destroy the capitalistic systems of the West wholesale, in line with his long-held radical political beliefs. When Martin declines Cosmo's offer to join forces, Cosmo throws Martin to the wolves by making sure that the authorities know of Martin's fugitive past and (framed) murderous present before dumping him back on the streets of San Francisco.

Bishop hides out at Liz's apartment, summoning his team to meet him there. When a fiendishly complicated phone call to a shadowy Mr. Abbott (James Earl Jones) yields no help, the group concludes that the must steal the box back from Cosmo. Once Whistler's pinpoint logic and flawless ears perform a marvelous feat of deduction, the team stakes out Playtronics, a toy company used as a front by Cosmo. In order to breach the state of the art security, Liz must go above and beyond the call of duty by going on a date with über-nerd Dr. Werner Brandes (Stephen Tobolowsky). Not only does she have to steal his security card, but also she has to get him on tape speaking the magic phrase needed for the voiceprint scanner at Playtronics!

The infiltration is slow, sweaty, nerve-wracking work requiring everyone to use their talent and luck to the utmost. However, just as Martin gets his hands on the prize, the plan begins to fall apart. Werner gets wise to Liz and tells his boss—Cosmo! Sensing what is happening, Cosmo puts his "NSA twins" Gordon and Wallace on the problem. Alarms are sounding, guards are running around, and somehow the team has to extract itself and the prize intact! Much mayhem ensues, and Whister's hidden talents as a driver are discovered!

By luck or by skill, with some devious misdirection, the team escapes unharmed only to run into the waiting arms of Mr. Abbott and his gun-toting friends. Some rough negotiation achieves a modus vivendi between Martin's team and the NSA, with some very idiosyncratic demands made by Martin's equally strange friends. But, just when you think you understand what's up, you don't! The End.

Video is good, but not up to the standards that we have come to expect from our favorite digital format. Thankfully, the anamorphic transfer is free of shimmering and ringing, and the picture is generally (with the occasional exception) free of dirt and defects. Sharpness is good and the blacks are solid, but the picture gets a bit softer and loses some shadow detail in the lower-lit scenes. Colors are well-saturated and free of chroma noise or bleeding, and flesh tones are excellent. Video noise is held-well in check, and is only of significance to picky reviewers.

The audio is as good as a matrixed Dolby Surround track might be expected to sound. Channel effects are distinct and properly used, with occasional use of the subwoofer for emphasis and pleasing sound across the frequency spectrum. Dialogue is clearly understood. Special note must be made of the score by James Horner, whose amazing career includes music for such films as Titanic, Apollo 13, Aliens, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Featuring the distinctive sound of Branford Marsalis, this score is a top reason that I find myself watching Sneakers over and over. The score evokes such a mood that I can hardly describe it. It is at times playful, lonely, mournful, sly, cool, and mellow. Give it a listen.

Extras are the usual catalog title assortment from Universal. Reasonably thorough production notes, a cast and filmmakers' bio/filmography section, and a properly formatted (yeah!), good quality theatrical trailer, all packaged in the preferred Amaray keep case.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

It almost seems to me that the writers, on their best behavior for 9/10ths of the movie, could not resist the urge to inject a significant political dose into the very end of the movie. I was grooving along nicely, but the sudden and flat declaration that the black box could only be used for domestic spying (making the NSA hats quite black, not merely gray) stopped me cold and took me out of the movie. This is compounded by the double-cross at the very, very end, for while I recognized how cute it was, nevertheless it struck me as far more problematic.

As far as the DVD, well, it's not bad treatment for a catalog title, but even a catalog title can be spiffed up a little better. How about animated menus with movie-related music and full motion clips in the chapter list? While we are at it, sixteen chapter stops is not very many for a two-hour plus movie.

Closing Statement

If you are looking for a film that will entertain you, dazzle you here and there, give you some good comedic jabs, and provide value for your leisure dollar, I heartily recommend Sneakers for rental or ($25) purchase.

The Verdict

Film and disc acquitted, with the thanks of the Court.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 84
Audio: 87
Extras: 50
Acting: 88
Story: 76
Judgment: 77

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Subtitles:
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 125 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
Genres:
• Comedy
• Crime
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Production Notes
• Talent Bios
• Film Highlights
• Theatrical Trailer

Accomplices

• IMDb








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