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Classic Hollywood: 'Sneakers' outlasts its technology

The tech in the 1992 film is dated, but the story isn't.

November 04, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • River Phoenix, left, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier in the 1992 movie "Sneakers."
River Phoenix, left, Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd and Sidney Poitier in… (Universal )

It turns out "Sneakers" has legs. And that comes as something of a surprise to Phil Alden Robinson, the director of the 1992 high-tech comedy caper.

"I think that so many things in America have such a short life and the attention span is so seemingly attenuated that it's surprising people even remember something from back then," Robinson said recently.

For years fans have gushed on the Internet over the pleasures of the movie whose high-powered cast included Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn and the late River Phoenix. "You tend to forget how awesome this movie is," declared Timothy D. Rideout on his site, The Mind Reels. "This film is one of those what when I watch it, I don't watch it once or twice, it gets thrown into high rotation for a while."

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On Sunday "Sneakers" will get a 20th-anniversary screening at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Robinson and co-writers and producers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker are reuniting to talk about the film with "Ed Wood" screenwriter Larry Karaszewski.

Parkes said that the film's current relevance might come down to one speech in the film delivered by Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), a former friend of Redford's Martin Bishop: "There's a war out there, old friend. A world war. And it's not about who's got the most bullets. It's about who controls the information. What we see and hear, how we work, what we think."

"Sneakers" follows a group of unorthodox, high-tech security specialists hired by companies to test their security systems. The group runs into serious problems when they are hired by two men whom they believe work for the U.S. government to steal a "little black box" decoder device being developed by a mathematician for the Russian government.

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"Sneakers," which earned generally good reviews and made $105 million internationally, was Robinson's first film since the 1989 blockbuster "Field of Dreams." He co-wrote the screenplay with Parkes and Lasker, the duo who came to fame with their screenplay for the 1983 computer thriller "WarGames." James Horner's vibrant score featuring Branford Marsalis on sax adds immeasurably to the humor and thriller aspects of the caper.

Parkes, a producer of the new film "Flight," said he believes audiences still gravitate toward "Sneakers" because "it is a very beloved genre. I remember when we pitched it we said it's a high-tech 'Dirty Dozen.'

"Audiences have a very comfortable relationship with a group that band together and somehow take on powers that are bigger than them. What we did was render the idea in the context of emerging technologies."

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"Sneakers" helped usher in a trend of thrillers revolving around computers including "The Pelican Brief," "Hackers" and "The Net."

"It was one of the first movies to get the Internet right," noted Karaszewski. "It is really about hacker culture and didn't talk down to hacker culture."

To be sure, the computer technology in the film has dated badly. But the plot remains relevant — the device that the group steals allows hackers to break any encryption code and cause havoc with government computer systems.

"When we started writing this we weren't obviously thinking 20 years ahead," said Robinson. "At the time, films that had action or fun in them were really made for kids, they weren't made for grown-ups. We felt that lack. We said let's make one of those for us. Maybe that is what people are responding to today."

Parkes and Lasker were doing research on "WarGames" when they learned the term "sneakers" was used by IBM to describe its young computer geeks.

"So I asked this electronics expert at some convention in Chicago about 'sneakers,'" said Lasker. "Instead of talking about these kids, he talked about 'black hatters' — securities experts who were hired by the government and private businesses to break into places and test security."

It took nearly a decade just to get the script done. "Larry and I did a very good job on the first two acts on the movie, but we were having trouble pulling it all together," Parkes recalled.

So Robinson was hired on the project.

"We proceeded to work together [on the script] for nine years," said Robinson. "On the title page of the shooting script it says 'based on 27 man years of drafts.'"

For more information, go to http://www/americancinematheque.com

Are you an aficionado of iconic Hollywood? Like our Classic Hollywood Facebook page to get more Times coverage.

susan.king@latimes.com

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