It’s dangerous to depict technology in a movie, since it can immediately date the film. When I was young I enjoyed Colossus: The Forbin Project, in which a computer takes over the world. With computers now running so many aspects of our lives, that has come true, but not in the way the film postulated. It was immersed in the Cold War mentality prevalent in 1970 when it was made. Watching it today, the movie’s computer villain is hopelessly antiquated. It’s huge, taking up the inside of a hollowed-out mountain. That made sense when computers filled whole rooms, but in the era of micro-processors it’s laughable. The computer was also set up using Basic as a language, which would be like speaking Elizabethan English today without being in one of Shakespeare’s plays. Based on a sci-fi trilogy, the screenplay was written by James Bridges, who went on to make The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome, and Urban Cowboy before his untimely death in 1993 at age 57.
Then there’s the iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the scene where Kier Dullea disables Hal, the movie anticipated the blade design now common for servers. Still, Hal was huge, and its all-seeing eye looks like it was lifted from a Super-8 movie camera. Even more recent movies can have jarringly old technology when watched today. In Independence Day, when Jeff Goldblum shows President Bill Pullman the digital countdown on his laptop, you also see a walkie-talkie-sized cell phone attached to it since it doesn’t have an interior modem. (It was delightful, though, to see the nod to HAL later in the movie.)
One movie, though, that holds up surprisingly well after 19 years is Sneakers. It’s also a wonderfully effective comedic caper thriller, which is not easy to do. Anyone remember Hudson Hawk? (Bruce Willis hopes you don’t.) Sneakers was director and co-writer Phil Alden Robinson’s follow-up to Field of Dreams. The movies share a gentle, character-based humor, but while Field is metaphysical, Sneakers is rooted in reality.
The movie begins with a prelude beneath the credits, played out on a snowy night twenty years earlier. Two young hackers, Marty (Gary Hershberger, a double for the Butch Cassidy-era Robert Redford) and Cosmo (Jojo Marr), have broken into a college to use its computer system for their mischief. For them it’s a lark with a counterculture twist – sticking it to the establishment. Marty loses a coin-flip on who will get food to fuel their work. While he’s warming up their VW minibus, the snow on the windshield starts flashing red. Looking out, Marty sees police cars filling the space in front of the building where Cosmo is working. He runs back to warn Cosmo through a window, but arrives just in time to see the police capture his friend. Marty backs away, disappearing in the snow.
In a lovely segue, the actual snow becomes electronic snow on a monitor in a surveillance van where the current day Martin Bishop (now played by Redford) is dozing. He’s awakened and, in a beautifully choreographed scene, he leads a crew in penetrating the defenses of a bank. Once inside, they use the bank’s computer to set up a dummy account containing a hundred thousand dollars. The next morning Redford closes out the account, explaining to the teller that he woke up that morning, “and just felt the bank wasn’t safe anymore.” He walks toward the door with a briefcase full of money, but then detours upstairs. Waiting there are the bank’s executives. Marty starts critiquing their security system while placing the stacks of bills on the desk in front of him.
“So, people hire you to break into their places… to make sure no one can break into their places?” a bank secretary asks as she prepares Bishop’s payment. “It’s a living,” Bishop responds. “Not a very good one,” the secretary says.
At their office, Bishop is visited by Dick and Buddy (Timothy Busfield and Eddie Jones) who want to hire his crew. Bishop pegs them as government types, and they eventually flash credentials identifying them as working for the NSA. “Relax, Marty,” Dick says, “we’re the good guys.” Bishop refuses to work for the government, but as they’re leaving Dick writes a contact phone number on a folded sheet of paper. “In case you reconsider,” he says. When Bishop unfolds the paper, he finds it’s a photocopy of his wanted poster, giving his real name.
With his cover blown, he confesses his background to his team. To save Bishop from prison, they decide to take on the job. The assignment is to steal a prototype electronic package being developed by Dr. Guntar Janek (Donal Logue). Again the heist is wonderfully done, but then they accidentally discover what the package really does. It’s a secret any government would happily kill to secure. Bishop and crew realize they’ve been played. Unless they can find a way out of the predicament, they’ll all end up dead.
The casting of the movie is incredible. Bishop’s crew is made up of former CIA operative Donald Crease (Sidney Portier), a no-nonsense second-in-command; Darren “Mother” Roskow (Dan Aykroyd), who espouses every wild conspiracy theory you’ve ever heard, and a few you probably haven’t; Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a delinquent apprenticed to the group who can understand a wiring diagram better than he can a woman; and Irwin “Whistler” Emery (David Stathairn), a blind sound surveillance expert who reads the Braille version of Playboy. Dragged into the fray to help them is Bishop’s former girlfriend Liz (Mary McDonnell), who’s beloved by the crew.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well. You have George Hearn playing Gregor, an acquaintance of Marty’s who is a former KGB officer now struggling to actually be a cultural attaché at his consulate. Stephen Tobolowsky plays a socially-inept scientist whom the team must compromise. And finally there’s Ben Kingsley as the CEO of the blandly-named but sinister Playtronics who knows Bishop very well.
The movie manages to avoid having the technology seem out-of-date by focusing on security systems that were cutting edge when the movie was made but have gained common acceptance over the years. Janek’s electronic box is the Holy Grail of cryptology to this day, so it remains topical.
The movie’s score by James Horner (Titanic, Braveheart) is a saxophone-based jazz piece that perfectly supports the feel of the film. While the movie is complex and incredibly twisty – what I’ve written above hardly touches the plot – it is handled with a deft, light touch.
Robinson has done little since this movie. His last time in the directing chair was for The Sum of all Fears, which in 2002 tried to reboot Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series with Ben Afleck taking over for Harrison Ford. It was not a success. His most recent writing credit was helping with the 2009 Academy Awards along with a dozen other writers. I wish he’d done more, but Sneakers stands up as excellent work. I’m hoping they’ll come out with a special 20th anniversary DVD next year. The movie deserves it.