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.”
I must give you fair warning. A careless Facebook commenter ruined a major plot twist of this film for me before I saw the film. I was very upset by that, and it did indeed affect my experience with the film. This is why I write spoiler-free reviews of newly released movies. Regardless of that, while I did find Iron Man 3 entertaining and mostly enjoyable, I have some strong stinging points to raise against it. I do not feel it is the best of them all. In all actuality, I still prefer both of the previous films over this one. That is sad because this had the potential to be really great, but it has at least one major failing, among others, that I will avoid spoiling for you.
Brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) goes against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds. When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle. With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?
Let’s start out with what I liked about the movie. It does a lot of fresh, inventive things with the suits. Tony being able to call upon the Mark 42 at will with some injected sensors was excellent, and many of the suiting up sequences stemming from that were fantastic. There’s even one action scene where Tony is fighting to escape captivity, and he only has one gauntlet and one leg of the suit to work with. He has to be more clever and dynamic with just these two parts to combat his enemies. I really liked that, and there’s even more awesomeness in the climax, which I’ll get to later. For most of the film, he’s stuck with this not entirely functional prototype that continually gets beaten up, requiring Tony to cobble together various resources to survive and battle his foes.
Of course, Downey still does a great job with the character. He’s lost nothing after his previous three outings, including The Avengers. There’s very good material here for him to work with that shades Tony’s story a little darker than before. He has some demons to resolve, and Downey does a fine job working with that. However, as good as Downey is, the script has its shortcomings with that material. There is the fact that Tony is struggling with these anxiety attacks, this sort of post-traumatic stress, but as the same as my gripe with Skyfall, we never see the character actually resolve this problem. It’s there and then it’s not there. This paralyzing fear that keeps striking Tony simply evaporates from his being with no resolution at all. In Iron Man 2, Tony went through an arc where he dealt with his issues, made a mends, and rediscovered his purpose and ambition. None of that effort exists within this movie. Downey handles Shane Black’s comedic writing greatly, but this is a film that could have benefitted greatly from less humor and a lot more dramatic turmoil and peril.
It is pleasing that we get a little more Don Cheadle here as Colonel Rhodes, but I still feel the character should be a lot more fleshed out by this point. Granted, this film puts him more into the thick of the action, both in and out of the suit, but I want to feel like Rhodey is more than just a supporting character. You’ve got an excellent actor here, and I don’t think he’s been used to a tenth of his potential, yet. The one thing I do like is how Tony kind of speaks for the audience in that rebranding War Machine into Iron Patriot doesn’t sound like a good idea. War Machine is who Rhodey has been in the comics, not Iron Patriot, and besides that, War Machine sounds like a guy you just do not want to mess with at all. That’s a bad ass name. Iron Patriot, not so much.
Now, Ty Simpkins portrays a young boy named Harley that Tony crosses paths with while trying to untangle the mystery of the Mandarin and the bombings he’s been behind. Simpkins does a stellar job trading sharp, witty dialogue beautifully with Downey. The two work wonderfully together, and I really did like and enjoy Harley. He was a great companion for Tony to have for a while that helped him along the way, and remained endearing and smart. He also gets a great pay-off at the end that was charming.
I am a big believer in the talent of Guy Pearce. I think he is an immensely talented actor that should have broken into the big time a good decade ago. His Aldrich Killian is the controller of this Extremis technology which creates nearly indestructible human weapons allowing them to regenerate body parts and repair fatal injuries almost instantly. Yet, the tech is not entirely stable resulting in some volatile reactions. Pearce makes Killian rather compelling with his charisma, air of sophistication and culture, and definitely with his underlying merciless villainy. I did find him to be an effective villain, but not a great one. Pearce certainly sells every bit of the character’s ruthless savvy and sociopathic relentlessness with just the right degree of arrogance and intelligence. In the climax, he definitely becomes a wicked bad ass that is not easy to take down. So while he’s not a villain that jumped out and stuck in my mind greatly, Killian is still a damn good one in the hands of Guy Pearce.
Now, the first thing I didn’t really care for was the Tony Stark narration at the beginning. Some months ago, I tried to watch Shane Black’s other directorial effort with Robert Downey, Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was the incessant narration that turned me off to that film as well. It made the film too self-aware in a bad way, and I just couldn’t even get twenty minutes into it. The narration is not incessant here, but it just didn’t establish an inviting tone for me. It just felt like Tony was breaking the fourth wall on me, and I didn’t like that feeling. Ultimately, it really only ties into the comedic post-end credits scene, which was funny but really frivolous. That was yet another thing that was spoiled to me going into it. This is sort of a movie experience that makes me realize there’s just too much information, preview clips, trailers, and TV spots spoiling important aspects of movies today. That’s why I’m glad for the marketing of Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel – they have given us fantastic glimpses of the films while spoiling nothing crucial. I’m excited for both films while still going into them knowing very little about the plot and layout of the films. Iron Man 3 just spewed out every little piece of footage and information people could get their hands on, and it terribly impacted my experience seeing this film. I’d expect a big, marketing savvy studio like Disney or Marvel to be more strategic in what they release, but apparently, that was a false perception on my part. It felt like I had watched this movie in sections on television, and was only now watching it in full for the first time. Of course, careless commenters on Facebook are beyond their control.
Now, while Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is an excellent character and villain here, showcasing much of Pearce’s wonderful talent and charisma, the issue I have is hotly focused on the handling of the Mandarin. Again, I will spoil nothing about the plot twist that goes into either of these characters, but simply said, the Mandarin is horribly, insultingly wasted. In the comics, he is Iron Man’s archenemy, and this film had such a powerful, masterful setup for this revamp of this villain. Instead, they chose to piss all over that potential and flush it down the toilet. If I didn’t have this essentially spoiled for me in advance, I think I would have been pissed sitting in that theatre. Almost as pissed off as I was at the end of The Dark Knight Rises because it is just stupidity at its finest handled in the most asinine way. I have no passionate connection to the Iron Man mythos, but I do know a bad idea on screen when I see it. You have this amazing actor in Ben Kingsley portraying this menacing, threatening, foreboding, and brutal character, and you make a complete and utter insulting waste of his talent with this horrendous plot twist. Frankly, the Mandarin could have elevated this film to an astonishing height with his reign of terror, but instead, it came crashing down because of what Shane Black did with him. In the comics, the Mandarin is a genius scientist and martial artist utilizing ten power rings adapted from alien technology as his primary source of power. Shifting that to a more grounded straight up terrorist with advanced technological bio-weaponry was working immensely well in the film until it was all dashed. The fact that Tony Stark was abducted by the Ten Rings in the first film created a closed loop of storytelling here that could have worked beautifully, but we are denied any ingenuity or brilliance here. The Mandarin is reduced to a punchline that I found no humor in at all. It is the biggest black mark on this film because it presented to us with amazing, potentially stunning potential, and turned it into a bad joke.
The other thing I really didn’t like was how much this film forced itself into feeling like the final act of a trilogy. I am so sick and tired of everyone’s obsession with trilogies these days. What happened to just telling a solid, independent story? Why MUST everything be conceived as a trilogy? Shane Black drops in so much stuff, especially at the end, making it feel like Marvel is closing the book on Iron Man. That’s surely not the case, but does this film ever feel like the final act of a movie trilogy. I really don’t get what the problem is with just making another sequel that allows for an ongoing series. There’s no reason this film had to be written as if it’s some final chapter for Tony Stark when Marvel is likely, in no way, considering that. I almost guarantee you we will see Tony Stark as Iron Man in The Avengers 2, but the way this film ends, you’d think otherwise. It’s such a blatant message that really annoys the crap out of me. The Mandarin issue is indeed worse, but this further burned me as the film came to an end.
And lastly, I felt the film indulged in too much humor. I really miss the sharp, punchy comedic timing that came with Jon Favreau’s direction. He rarely ever lingered on a joke or gag. He kept it tight and to the point. Shane Black drags too many bits out for too long. The joke plays itself out, but the film keeps running with it. There’s also frivolous gags like how Happy Hogan is dressed up like Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction in the flashback to 1999 (five years after that movie came out). There’s no reason for that. It’s just there as a gag that no one in my theatre even picked up on to laugh at. Probably because you could barely tell it was supposed to be Jon Favreau in that ridiculous getup. Most importantly, I feel the humor outweighs the drama of the story. There’s an over abundance of it with the dramatic turmoil going on is brushed aside. Almost no scene goes by without some kind of witty, funny banter between characters, and that really weakens the dramatic weight that Black attempted to inject into this film. The previous two Iron Man films knew when you shift tones and focus on the emotional or dramatic poignancy of the story. This film barely does that at all.
There is also the inevitable thought that’s going to come into the minds of a lot of people. With this terrorist threat imposing itself upon America, where are the other heroes? I mean, you’d at least expect Captain America to be called upon to combat an enemy to the American people. Even Iron Patriot doesn’t get called in until almost the last minute. At least with Thor, he’s off traveling to different worlds and realms, and the Hulk is too potentially unstable to call in on a whim. Yet, Stark shouldn’t have much hesitation in doing so considering the Hulk saved his life, and he and Banner are now close buddies. Still, even S.H.I.E.L.D. is apparently not even involved. At least in the comics, you have dozens of storylines running concurrently with all of these books being published showing what’s occupying these heroes at all times. You don’t have that luxury here. Marvel Studios is going to have to craft these films extremely carefully to explain away these issues. You can’t have a shared universe with stories that take place in a vacuum.
Now, Iron Man 3 does contain the best climax of the series, so far. The all-out assault on Killian and his Extremis soldiers was killer! The entire army of Iron Man suits greatly ties into Tony having had too much time on his hands from all his sleepless nights. Him jumping in and out of various suits throughout this sequence to escape various scenarios was an exciting, brilliant idea. It has a lot of peril and awesome action that blends together in masterful fashion. It all taking place at this shipyard with cranes and scaffolding really allowed for great dynamics to have the Jarvis-automated suits flying around attacking and being attacked. How Tony tries to jump into certain suits, only to have them blown away, or only get part of a suit added to the unpredictability and danger of it all. The battle between Tony and Killian was fantastic and bad ass. I really loved it all the way through. And while I loved the quirkiness of what Tony does after the fight with the suits, the connotation it left me with was not to my liking. Again, it’s part of that forced trilogy style close-endedness which seemed ridiculous and stupidly unnecessary.
The main problem here is that Shane Black seemed intent on making this an entertaining, humorous film with a backdrop of drama and consequence, but ultimately, did not give most of those dramatic aspects their just due. The only time he does allow any dramatic resolution is in trying to tie off all character threads at the end like it was a conclusion to a trilogy. Black also sacrifices coherent, intelligent, and solid storytelling for a few extended gags. I mean, if you’re not going to do the Mandarin justice, don’t bother putting him in the film at all. Also, don’t bother having that PTSD aspect part of Tony’s character if you’re not actually going to have him go through the process of dealing with and overcoming it. While Iron Man 2 was an over-bloated film with too many plot threads and a story that veered off track, I can still enjoy it because it at least did nothing to raise my ire. It’s a lightly enjoyable mess. This film has enough abrasive stinging points for me to say I don’t really like it. There are things in it I do like and found a lot of enjoyment from, but as a whole, those miscues and bad ideas sour me to it. After I found The Avengers to be a largely entertaining, yet hollow movie with a paper thin plot and stock villains, I had hopes that the individual sequels would be better developed and more substantive, like what had come before. While Iron Man 3 has substance, this was not at all the right script to sign off on. I’ve loved a lot of Shane Black’s work from Lethal Weapon to The Monster Squad to The Last Boy Scout, but this is clearly where Marvel Studios should have exercised more creative control, in my opinion. Maybe you won’t find these issues so objectionable upon your viewing of the film, but for me, they really drive me away from wanting to see it again. There is a lot of entertainment value to be had, but this film, for me, features more than just a few stumbling blocks. It has some rocky pot holes in its road.