“On This Day” is a new column, one which we hope to be somewhat of a regular constituent of the ‘hole, that will explore the box-office on a given date in history – usually, 20 or 25 years ago (keeping it nice and round-numbered; no loose change so we don’t weigh down our pockets). It’s always interesting to look back at films that opened on the same week/day/month as current offerings, but more so, enjoyable – we believe, anyway – to revisit, if even in text form, some of the classics from yesteryear. We’re almost providing a service to both the film-fan and the local video library’s ‘classic’ shelf here.
Released 20 years ago this week.
“Sneakers” is a 1992 caper with a cheeriness you’ll know more recently from the “National Treasure” and “Mission Impossible” series but with far less action and an ensemble cast more familiar to 40-pluses than 30-minuses. Anyone spoiled by $200 million budgets will immediately notice an absence of crash, boom, bang. Even the film’s tech might seem prosaic next to whatever gadget your 12-year-old nephew is currently fiddling with. The story’s to-kill-for device, a black box capable of decrypting any and all American codes (webpages included), is little more than a circuit board in the shell of an answering machine, and showing it off through an early-90s computer interface lacks a certain…sexiness, but so what. “Sneakers” walks light and works on the strength of a great cast and the right measures of drama, comedy and intrigue. Consider it Bond for Mom.
Information is the name of the game. As is secrets. Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) has his. Wanted by the F.B.I. for computer and bank fraud since his days as an idealistic hacker, he now lives under an alias and makes meagre ends meet testing the crackability of his clients’ security systems. Assisting him is a very skilled crew: Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), an ex-C.I.A. veteran; Mother (Dan Aykroyd), a communications wiz/conspiracy nut (Yes, we have been visited by aliens and yes, they came for the cow lips); Whistler (David Strathairn), a blind peacenik who can map a room by listening to it, and Carl (River Phoenix), a nerdy romantic. The game gets personal when a pair of stiffs from the National Security Agency twist Bishop’s arm into stealing a mysterious, Russian financed black box from Dr. Janek (Donal Logue), one of those long-haired movie genius mathematician types, colorful but destined to die. The payday for the sneak is 175 grand and a clean record for Bishop. The crew accept.
The job is disappointingly simple for a spy thriller, not that we need to see Redford descend from the ceiling in black tights. One hard kick to a hotel room door is all Bishop needs. But when the group discovers what the box is actually capable of, alarm bells sound. We know it, of course. If we’ve learned anything about the fictional world of spy, it’s that the honey pot is only so big. Once the bad guys get their hands on it, all others are speedily cut off.
But who are the bad guys? Writer/director Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”) keeps us guessing with the usual slate of American governmental agencies plus some Soviet Cold-War leftovers, but the film plays better as a “How will they do it?” than a “Whodunit?” – something it shares in common with the DePalma “Mission Impossible.” The film is most fun when the Sneakers are actually sneaking, squabbling in surveillance vans and making molehills out of insurmountable obstacles through a kind of desperate ingenuity. It’s an ingenuity we can enjoy because it’s mostly simple enough to understand, like the MacGyver television series in its day. In one clever scene, the Sneakers track the bad guys to their lair using their knowledge of the city and Bishop’s memory of what it sounded like to be taken there. Simple and cool, and non-violent, also a MacGyver trademark.
The weaknesses are predictable but few and fortunate for our heroes: megalomaniacs who spill the beans too early and henchmen who pull the trigger too late. Despite a first-rate cast they’re mostly in supporting roles. More than once I had the feeling I wasn’t getting my star-power’s worth. No one performance makes a lasting impression but as an ensemble the job gets done. The film’s message of the future being about “who controls the information” seems more a no-brainer today then when the film first opened, before the days of iTunes, camera phones and Napster. It’s no less true today either, of course. The film closes with a news anchor’s announcement of the mysterious bankruptcy of the Republican National Committe alongside a record influx of donations to Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund. I guess it’s what you do with the information that really counts.
• “Sneakers” released in September of 1992, grossed a pleasing – but not staggering – $51 million in its run. Like so many films of this ilk, it found its audience largely on VHS.
• The headline cast was terrific, but director Phil Alden Robinson also went out of his way to fill the supports with some of the best available talent around at the time. Timothy Busfield, Bodhi Elfman, Eddie Jones, Stephen Tobolowsky and ’90s staple James Earl Jones were all in there. Casting directors Juel Bestrop and Risa Bramon Garcia definitely earned their keep that day.
• That terrific score for the film was composed by James Horner who, a few years later, would hit it out of the park – commercial, critically and financially – with the music gig on “Titanic” (1998).
• But most importantly, it gave us one of the last, great performances by River Phoenix. Here’s an archived interview with River :