Smart guys fooled easily in 'Sneakers' Redford indulges in high-tech capers

September 11, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

"Sneakers" is actually about a fabled icon from the bottom of a cereal box in everybody's lost childhood: a Captain Jack Secret Decoder Ring. Except that this Captain Jack Secret Decoder Ring is a little black box; with it, one can penetrate all the"Sneakers" is actually about a fabled icon from the bottom of a cereal box in everybody's lost childhood: a Captain Jack Secret Decoder Ring. Except that this Captain Jack Secret Decoder Ring is a little black box; with it, one can penetrate all the computer codes known to man, and in our computerized age, that's very much the key to the kingdom. If you want to start global nuclear war, reroute every flight from L.A. to Peoria, or transfer all of John Gotti's funds to your bank account, this is the doohickey that will do it.

It falls to Robert Redford, as a team leader of some private-industry sneakers (i.e., security experts) to lift the thing from its inventor, a defected Russian scientist; he's bumped into this course of action by the National Security Agency, which has uncovered his flashy radical past (he was a '60s peace warrior). Only when he and the team have turned the black box over to their bosses do they realize they've been snookered and have to steal it back.

Flaw No. 1: If these guys are so smart, how come they're so easily fooled?

Well, "Sneakers" isn't long on either logic or reality but its central conceit is its most ridiculous: It's about complicated plans predicated on human beings acting exactly as predicted. Nobody ever goes to the bathroom or turns his head at exactly the wrong moment. The movie offers the fascination of clockworks, not art: endless gears and cogs meshing and clicking.

This is not without some pleasure, as the movie turns into a kind of catalog of capers, a boy's best book of locked room puzzles. When the capers are good, the movie is good; when they're weak, it's time for more popcorn.

The milieu is high-tech computer culture as it interfaces with the twilight zone of big-time professional thieves, and the Redford .. team isn't without some charm. Possibly the best of them is David Strathairn as a blind genius who relies on uncanny hearing to guide him through the thickets of computerized reality; rotund Dan Aykroyd (he seems to be turning into Sydney Greenstreet) gets some laughs as "Mother," a conspiracy freak, although the code-name "Mother" has been used many previous times. Sidney Poitier is noble and dignified, as Sidney Poitier always is; the only loser in the pack is River Phoenix, in a sliver of a role inserted to widen the demographics appeal of the picture from old guys who never go to movies to young guys who always do.

As for Redford, he seems somehow to have moved beyond acting, into a realm of merely being. It's as if he's wandered onto the sound stage from the Universal Tour and finds himself somewhat gently bemused to suddenly be the center of so much attention. It's a self-deprecating, engaging appearance, but it's so held back it communicates, besides the charm, his deep embarrassment at actually having to do something this silly for a living.

Phil Alden Robinson most famously directed "Field of Dreams." I didn't like it, but many people did, and I'll concede that it managed to somehow touch a chord in the millions. No such luck here. The movie labors mightily to connect itself with mighty themes, to find secret chords -- fear of an oppressive government -- and to represent humanistic values -- the little guy -- but it never feels sincere. It's much more entertaining when it ceases to pander and gets down to business and several of the penetrations, particularly the climactic one, are particularly clever.

But then the movie squanders the considerable goodwill it has accumulated in an extended comic meltdown with agents of the NSA, which a.) isn't very funny and b.) put my teeth on edge. It pushes a familiar earnest liberal line, left over from the long years of the cold war: that the true origin of evil in the world is the United States government, that semi-fascist organ of state terror, as lead by those ghouls from hell and beyond, the Republican Party. It's so morally smug and superior, it makes you feel as if you've been carjacked by Michael Doonesbury.

'Sneakers'

Starring Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier.

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson.

Released by Universal.

Rated PG-13.

***

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