Ensemble casts are a sweet pleasure. When you bring a wonderfully talented group of actors together that spark a unique chemistry, you’ve got cinematic gold piled to the ceiling. Sneakers is one of those great films that blends and balances comedy, drama, and action successfully. Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, Sidney Poitier, and David Strathairn populate this highly entertaining film that is truly charming.
Computer expert Martin Bishop (Redford) heads a team of renegade hackers – including a former CIA employee (Sidney Poitier), a gadgets wizard (Dan Aykroyd), a young genius (River Phoenix) and a blind soundman (David Strathairn) – who are routinely hired to test security systems. But Bishop’s past comes back to haunt him when government agents blackmail the “sneakers” into carrying out a covert operation: tracking down an elusive black box. Along with his former girlfriend (Mary McDonnell), Bishop’s team retrieves the box and makes a stunning discovery – the device can break into any computer system in the world. With factions from all sides willing to kill for the powerful box, Bishop and his team embark on their most dangerous assignment ever which will lead him to confronting a contentious specter from his past.
Sneakers truly is rich with talent, and is a hell of a lot of fun! The comedy is handled with such sharp wit and smart savvy. There’s a lot of charm and heart put into this film that maintains a nice light chemistry and upbeat pace. Everyone surely seems like they had a fantastically enjoyable time making this movie. Our heroes are like boys in a clubhouse. They are a playful and slightly immature bunch with their childish disagreements, especially between Aykroyd’s conspiracy theorist character and Poitier’s ex-CIA Agent Crease. Martin holds them together with his smart, level head, but it’s fun seeing them kind of stumble here and there through unexpected situations. They have to think on their feet, and the results are usually hilarious. These guys are clever and quick witted enough to slip on through some tight scenarios. They’re not some Mission: Impossible style crack team, but they have the mismatched skills to really pull off some impressive, unorthodox feats.
No one amongst the cast embodies the delicate balance of light-hearted wit and solid drama better than Robert Redford, and that should come as no surprise. It really all comes down to the natural heart and grounded sensibility he brings to a role. It’s great seeing that he might be a man in his fifties here, but he’s able to bring that youthful, teenage energy at the right times. This can be seen greatly between him and Mary McDonnell early on, who are beautifully sweet and genuine together. Redford makes Martin a very endearing person with a touching depth. There are a lot of subtle qualities he adds in that allow for the humor and drama to mesh seamlessly. It’s surely not an easy thing to pull off, but he makes it appear effortless, which is a testament to his natural charisma and talent.
And Mary McDonnell really demonstrates confidence, grace, and smarts as Liz. She’s really a vibrant, mature cog in this rather playful ensemble. It’s nice to see that dynamic, which does rub off in places. There is a real, genuine spark between her and Redford that builds as the film goes on, but never overtakes the tone or focus of the film. Yet, she gets to partake in some of the fun, too, and it’s really enjoyable. The best thing to see in an ensemble cast is when no one gets short changed. In this film, everyone gets their fair share of screentime to shine brilliantly, and Mary McDonnell is only one of many getting that chance here.
The rock solid core of the group is indeed Sidney Poitier’s Donald Crease. The moment he knows they’re all in danger, Crease exercises his CIA instincts, and shows he’s a tactically sound professional. Poitier definitely shows he can be a solid bad ass in this role, but still delivers on the fun and humor. Of course, for the role of Mother, there was no more perfect choice than Dan Aykroyd. The rapid fire conspiracy theory dialogue, and the sharp wit completely fit his talent. David Strathairn is wonderfully exuberant really doing a remarkably fun job as Whistler. Watching this blind sound expert be the wheelman for their escape in the climax, driving the team’s van full speed through a parking lot, is just a brilliant, joyful moment. And the late River Phoenix shows the charming innocence of Carl adding the authentic youthful naivety to this team.
Cosmo is really smartly handled by Ben Kingsley. It’s an especially great idea having the film’s antagonist being an old friend of Martin’s, and to see how these two have diverged down different paths. Cosmo became swallowed up by the criminal underworld, and held onto his youthful beliefs of radically altering the world through crooked computer activities. Wiping out world economies and collapsing the system started out as youthful idealism, and grew into a rather disillusioned ruthless criminal. However, Kingsley so wisely plays things down and subtly serious. He has a lot of the same wide eyed wonder as the rest of the cast, but it’s tempered by this man who has felt abandoned and betrayed by his best friend. By the end, there’s something sad about this character as Martin pretty much pities him. Ultimately, the film is about Martin and Cosmo resolving their pasts, but it’s Martin who has been able to move beyond it into a brighter future.
The score by James Horner is really delightful. The light melodies he sprinkles into the film to maintain the sense of fun and adventure are the true highlight. However, the more dramatic scenes, especially when the film gets perilous or tightly suspenseful, are intensely excellent. Horner’s execution of the score is directly in line with Phil Alden Robinson’s superb and intelligent direction. He enhances what Robinson does on screen with great inspiration in all musical aspects of his work.
Beyond anything else, Sneakers is especially clever. The sequence where the guys discover what the black box is, and Martin decodes “Setec Astronomy” with the help of a Scrabble board game is just so smart and a little whimsical. And when Martin goes to the Russian delegate for answers, there’s a brilliant moment where he steps out of the light and into the shadows to say, “Trust me.” It’s artistic flourishes like that which show Robinson just knew how to weave the dramatic weight of an espionage thriller into this light-hearted adventure. This really is some of the smartest direction I have seen because both the lighter and heavier aspects of the film are executed with equally brilliant skill.
It’s quite striking that the ideas of the world being controlled by information presented here are even more relevant now than they were twenty years ago. It’s surprising how much of what’s discussed and brought up in Sneakers rings true to what we hear in the news every day. Now, more than ever, does information and knowledge equal power, and people wield information like a sword. Cosmo believes in that with absolute certainty, and wants to be the one who can shut it all down with a keystroke. Yet, you will absolutely walk away from Sneakers with a plentiful feeling of enjoyment because it is such a charming experience.
Still, I find it so difficult to accurately categorize this film in a predominant genre because all of the humor is wonderfully delightful, the drama is perfectly nailed, and the action is purely thrilling. Most importantly, Sneakers just has a lot of heart in it through and through. There’s plenty of fun to be had with it while still getting a substantive story, a touch of heartfelt emotion, and a set of great performances out of it. The cast is a joyful delight with chemistry and charisma to spare. There’s really so much to love and adore about this film. If you enjoy Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven or even this year’s Now You See Me, I think you will fall totally in love with Sneakers. It is so amazingly well executed that I wish Phil Alden Robinson, the director also behind Field of Dreams, would direct even more films of this superb quality. There will always be a place in cinema for something that can deliver on the dramatic excellence while providing us a great breadth of clever humor. If any one word does sum up Sneakers for me, it is “delightful.”