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 have rarely done reviews on comedies because it’s difficult to analyze them very much. It’s either funny or its not. Of course, different things make different people laugh, and so, it’s far more subjective than a drama or action movie. However, there is this 1985 movie from John Landis that sparked my interest in the past year. The plot sounded like just my kind of thing. A wild, humorous adventure of people on the run from dangerous criminals through the night streets of Los Angeles. Sort of evoking the idea of a comedic Michael Mann film. Unfortunately, this movie shares a lot of problems with Mann’s underwhelming and momentum starved Miami Vice feature film, which I have previously reviewed here. There are a few bright spots, but the execution and pacing of this film are its greatest flaws.
Upon discovering that his wife is having an affair, depressed insomniac Ed Okin (Jeff Goldblum) drives to the airport on the suggestion of his friend and co-worker Herb (Dan Aykroyd), where he is abruptly ensnared by a beautiful Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer) into her escape from four armed Iranians. Diana persuades Ed into driving her to various locations as he becomes entangled in her predicament. As their adventure spirals further out of control, Ed leverages the truth from Diana who reveals she has smuggled priceless emeralds from the Shah of Iran’s treasury into the country, and is being pursued by numerous foreign criminal elements. Ed and Diana cautiously navigate through this treacherous journey to where they become romantically connected.
Generally, I like the premise of this film. It has the potential to be very entertaining, if put into the right hands. However, this really wasn’t. Comedy is really about timing, rhythm, and personality. Into The Night has no momentum to carry the intended situational humor along at a necessary rhythm or pace. For a film about people on the run from violent criminals, it is a fairly slow paced feature. It is very unlike John Landis’ The Blues Brothers which had those high energy moments to keep the story exciting and funny. There are a few exciting action sequences in this film, but they are very scarce. The story also doesn’t have any quick witted personalities to reel a mass audience in.
I have enjoyed Jeff Goldblum’s talent since Jurassic Park playing some off-beat characters that add a different flavor to the story or cast. I don’t find any flaw with him in this movie. It plays to a more subdued version of his signature style. Being a guy with insomnia who has gone an unknown number of days without proper sleep, he can’t be highly charismatic and energetic. Ed has to be a more low key guy because of his fatigue and slowed wits. Many of us have gone without a proper night’s rest, and that alone impairs your mental capabilities. I, myself, have gone a full thirty-six hours without sleep, and even that is enough to muddle one’s synaptic sharpness. There is nothing wrong with what Goldblum did in this movie. Playing the straight man can make you the most hilarious person in the movie. Tommy Lee Jones in the Men in Black movies comes to mind, but it only works in contrast to something else.
Instead, all the other characters are very one note playing up a shallow characterization, and adding little to what should have been a cast of lively, eclectic characters. They are generally peculiar and diverse, but there are no strong or charismatic personalities to allow any humor to thrive through them. It’s all too low key, and too many people playing the straight man offering no overt humor. I feel it would’ve been better to have just Ed be the singular low key character surrounded by more verbose people to create a contrast. His drab and mundane life would be interrupted by all these vibrant, off-kilter characters that carry him along on a very bizarre adventure. I also find it hard to grasp is that none of the characters are even trying to be funny. They yell and argue with one another with no punch line, no humorous twist to create a laugh, or they drift through the movie playing it straight with a dull thud. Everything is far too underplayed to be funny. The fact is, I found very little about this film to be funny except for the physical comedy. A little of that comes from Goldblum, but mostly from the dialogue devoid group of Iranians (of which director John Landis is one of them). However, there is one excellent exception to all of this.
In the entire movie, the only person I feel hit the personality and charisma of what it needed was David Bowie. His British hitman character of Colin Morris really jumps in with the right subtle crazy tone and wit. He’s very proper and polite, but is clearly a psychopath that is both scary and amusing. Bowie has only two scenes, but he easily steals the show with a richly developed character that is a prime example of what this film should’ve offered in spades. Colin is both smartly humorous and lethally dangerous. That’s a dynamic rich with comedic potential. It really is Bowie’s charisma and delicate sense of tone that makes Colin Morris work. How he is able to shift from funny to fearsome creates it’s own comedy. Bowie clearly had a lot of fun playing this role, which is not something I saw much of from anyone else. A comedy should seem like everyone is enjoying themselves, getting into their characters and having a wonderfully amusing time at it. None of the other actors seemed to be having a great time on screen playing up their characters and finding their chemistry with the cast.
Fortunately, the musical score by blues legend B.B King is the true shining point of the movie. It surely gives the whole film a wonderful, unique feel that suits a mostly nighttime set story. With the right pacing and wit from the film itself, B.B. King’s music could’ve enhanced the rhythm and personality of the movie, but as it is, the blues tracks are just a cool listen that occasionally boost the film’s atmosphere.
As with most comedies of this time period, the cinematography is not much to speak of. It’s really just a point and shoot mentality, like a sitcom. So, it’s nothing I will hold against it. Comedy films today do a lot more with polishing up the visual flare and photography of the movie to enhance their production values, but in the bulk of the ‘80s, that approach did not often exist. If Into The Night had a little more vision and ambition behind it maybe it would have a little more visual style.
Again, the premise had promise. I surely believe a remake with modern pacing and filmmaking mentalities could potentially turn this around into a more effective comedy. Frankly, Into The Night needed more momentum, a faster pace to bring out the humor in the story instead of dragging along from one underwhelming scenario to the next. The villainous characters should’ve been larger than life and more over the top to bolster laughs. Goldblum plays his role well reacting to the few outrageous moments with subtle genius. Michelle Pfeifer was a nice female lead, but was not quite as endearing as I believe her character should’ve been. There could’ve been more chemistry sparked between Goldblum and Pfeifer, but like with everything else here, it’s not motivated strongly enough to create something special. I think the filmmakers believed this movie had wit, but they could never hit it on the mark. Some reviews have said it tried too hard for laughs. In a way, maybe that is correct. This film goes to great lengths to have an elaborate storyline filled with a large cast of characters. It tries hard to find a place and a moment for each of them, but it only comes off as overbloated. Comedy should never be complicated. It should be simple, or at least, streamlined. You throw too many elements into the joke, and you lose the effect of the punchline. I think that is a perfect way to sum up this movie. While the storyline is not confusing, it is overworked and a little self-indulgent. By evidence of the massive amount of filmmaker cameos, there is a self-indulgent mentality in the approach to this feature film. John Landis had a short window of inspired cinematic comedy brilliance, but it was more than twenty years ago. Into The Night was a definite misstep during that high point era, but movies like Beverly Hills Cop III and Blues Brothers 2000 show just how far and hard his movie career has fallen.
There are films I enjoy because of their potential, and to some degree, this is one. A story that could’ve been made into an excellently hilarious film, but just achieved nearly nothing of that potential. The film has shown up regularly on HBO or Cinemax in the last several months. So, you shouldn’t need to spend money to check it out. Just program your DVR if you’re fortunate enough to get those premium channels. If not, it’s not a real loss. There are countless more successfully funny movies out there to give you a healthy laugh than this one.