From its first words on screen right through its closing scene, "Sneakers" (citywide) is programmed for playfulness. A confident caper movie with a most pleasant sense of humor, it goes about its business in such a good-spirited way that it manages to make its familiar "Mission: Impossible" plot seem good as new.
Those first words ("A Turnip Cures Elvis," which turn out to be an anagram for Universal Pictures) are an early hint of "Sneakers' " twisting plot, which has a lot to do with cryptography and codes. They're more telling, however, as a precursor of the film's witty, hang-loose tone. Even its title, which refers not to footwear but to a gang of five who literally sneak around looking for information, has the kind of clever, self-deprecating twist that is rarely seen but always welcome.
These light spirits are due both to the ensemble cast, headed by Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier and Dan Aykroyd, and to director Phil Alden Robinson, who co-wrote the smart though convoluted script with producers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (who nurtured this project for more than a decade). Robinson, best known for the sleeper hit "Field of Dreams," managed to get all his big names to relax and enjoy themselves. And when they have fun, it's easy for us to do likewise.
Redford plays Martin Bishop, the titular head of a San Francisco-based organization with a most unusual staff. Crease (Poitier) is a cranky 22-year veteran of the CIA, Mother (Aykroyd) is a paranoid gadget freak who thinks the CIA caused an earthquake in Nicaragua, Whistler (David Strathairn) is a blind man with an overpowering sense of hearing, and Carl (River Phoenix) is the new young computer whiz on the block.
Well-versed in the latest in technological gimmickry, handy with hidden microphones, surveillance devices and all manner of computer tricks, these renegade masters of derring-do hire themselves out to companies eager to see if their security systems are really secure. They're paid to break in, in other words, so nobody else can.
Unbeknown to his partners (but revealed in a title sequence flashback), Bishop has something of a checkered past. Back in 1969, while he and best friend Cosmo were still in college, they engaged in a spate of illegal computer hacking, performing such puckish acts as having the Republican Party make a generous donation to the Black Panthers. The authorities were not amused, and when Cosmo gets caught and goes to prison, Bishop goes permanently on the lam.
Although this is supposed to be hidden in the dark past, it turns out to be common knowledge to two bullying representatives of the super-secret National Security Agency who want the help of Bishop and his boys. It seems a brilliant cryptographer has created a (no kidding) little black box that is set to turn the world of protective governmental computer codes upside down, and the NSA wants Bishop's sneakers to lift it. Or else.
This "the secret that could change the world" stuff is reminiscent of thrillers without number (the Redford-starring "Three Days of the Condor" comes most obviously to mind), and, despite its labyrinthine twists, the PG-13 "Sneakers" quite frankly has nothing new to add in the plot development department.
But director Robinson proves surprisingly adept at creating tension at appropriate moments, and also makes good use of the script's air of clever cheerfulness to move us swiftly through some of its more convoluted turns. Finding the characters so likable, we are happy enough to follow them just about anywhere.
Although the key to "Sneakers' " charm is that the actors (including a glowering Ben Kingsley and an appealing Mary McDonnell as Bishop's on-again, off-again girlfriend) make this kind of ensemble camaraderie look easy, it is in reality much harder to manage than it seems.
Leading the way is Redford, who hasn't let the fact that he's made a career out of this kind of role prevent him from being smoothly at his ease. Poitier's all-business CIA type is a nice foil to both Redford's casual blarney and Aykroyd's comic paranoia. And while Phoenix does what he can with an underwritten role, Strathairn (a John Sayles regular currently in "A League of Their Own") makes easily the most entertaining impression as the sightless seer who knows all the answers.
Although it's often unclear exactly what specific talents each of these operatives actually brings to the organization, it is the easy interaction among them that is "Sneakers' " strongest point. This is a film that knows enough not to take itself too seriously, and watching the gang wryly adjusting to each other's quirks and foibles is diverting enough to quash any lingering cavils.
Robert Redford Bishop
Dan Aykroyd Mother
Ben Kingsley Cosmo
Mary McDonnell Liz
River Phoenix Carl
Sidney Poitier Crease
David Strathairn Whistler
A Lasker/Parkes production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Phil Alden Robinson. Producers Walter F. Parkes, Lawrence Lasker. Executive producer Lindsley Parsons Jr. Screenplay Phil Alden Robinson and Lawrence Lasker & Walter F. Parkes. Cinematographer John Lindley. Editor Tom Rolf. Costumes Bernie Pollack. Music James Horner. Production design Patrizia von Brandenstein. Art director Dianne Wager. Set decorator Samara Schaffer. Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.