1990s cinema ended on a flock of indie movie dominance featuring the imaginative, original likes of Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, Fight Club, Election, The Blair Witch Project and Boys Don’t Cry. Yet, it began with the warmer, more Hollywood minded fare of Pretty Woman, Ghost, Edward Scissorhands, and Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams.
In a follow up to his warm-souled Kevin Costner drama about baseball fields and Thirtysomething parental angst, director Robinson then logged in and uploaded Sneakers (1992).
The first of a small few of computer, interweb minded movies of the decade that saw great strides in home computer tech and internet advancements, Sneakers eventually became one of the sleeper hits and fondly listed titles of the 1990s.
And it's getting a new Blu-ray re-release on 5 July from Film Stories, making it the perfect time to revisit this underappreciated gem.
Starring screen legend Robert Redford — the one your mum always fancied — as cyber expert Martin Brice, the film is all about the underground subculture, activism, and politics of computer hacking.
Already a hard sell for mainstream movies: only Tron (1982) and WarGames (1983) had made any real substantial box-office inroads into the hard-to-depict story world previously. Nothing can kill a film’s energy more than characters tapping away on keyboards, scanning oceans of cyber coding, and pondering flashing cursors.
Curiously, Sneakers pulls it off and still does to this day – which is not bad considering it is from a vastly different era of computer tech and virtual cat and mouse play. Sneakers comes from director-writer Robinson and writers Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes. Parkes and Lasker both produced the film too.
They also wrote WarGames – arguably still the defining movie about computers and governmental intrigue with a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination to maybe prove it. Parkes went on to produce some major titles in the thirty years since – including the Men In Black series, The Kite Runner (2007), The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020) and the forthcoming Gladiator 2. He also developed an NBC TV series version of Sneakers that ultimately failed to materialise.
Read more: Revisiting For Your Eyes Only at 40
Pitched in a 1992 world of President Bush anger, burgeoning San Francisco tech, the beginnings of banking ethics being questioned and gloriously chunky GoldStar computers, Sneakers is about a warm-hearted ensemble of warm-minded pals from across the movie generations combining to pull off many code-cracking heists and security-baiting manoeuvres.
Joining Redford’s Brice is Sidney Poitier’s ‘Crease’, Dan Aykroyd’s ‘Mother’, River Phoenix’s Carl, David Straitharn’s blind ‘Whistler’ and the quietly brilliant Mary McDonnell – the First Lady of 1990s cinema. The cracking ensemble are a virtual team of avenging Robin Hoods – hacking and robbing to prove to the banks and corporations they need better security.
When a private assignment goes naturally wrong and further intrigue is afoot, Redford’s task manager Martin adopts an Ocean’s Eleven Byte security wall to go rogue in a film with those 1980s ‘Russians TM’ as story dressing. And all in an era of no mobile phones or CCTV.
The real joy of Sneakers is not its computer play world and midnight cyber raids. With Robinson’s single takes enforcing the character detail and ability to let the likes of Poitier and Redford shine like the golden movie stars they always are, the skill of Sneakers is its collective of characters.
In an era of ensemble movies draped in superhero capes and Marvel headgear, Sneakers is a refreshing yesteryear flashback to those big Hollywood casts all working together for a greater story good. Redford and Poitier are never pitched as Lethal Weapon veterans, but current day leading men.
And Aykroyd brings a bit of his Ray Stantz geekiness and conspiracy theory comedy as he wanders through every scene fiddling with switches and wires. Ben Kingsley’s villainous turn as Cosmo is perhaps the weakest upload that has aged less well – something about remote controls opening doors, tie-less suits, ponytails, and True Lies villainy all feels a bit Microsoft 3.0 now. And probably did in 1991.
A quieter, better performance is from River Phoenix. Barely 21 when he shot the film, Sneakers serves as a future-tragic reminder of what could have been as his young handsome buck plays alongside and is mentored by Redford, the original young handsome buck.
A year after Sneakers was released, Phoenix was dead. Had that not happened, Phoenix had all the potential and conscience to be the next Redford and move into directing and producing.
One of the burgeoning stars of Sneakers was its composer, James Horner. With its oboes, New York jazz pianos, muted horns, and those floaty, snow-ridden Danny Elfman-esque choral backgrounds (so early 1990s), Horner’s work here is quietly up there with his best. He nails the autumnal, but energetic pulses of the leads and the panicking urgency of their life hacks and quests.
The film does present a different era sense of story contemplation and pace and would be a quicker managed work today. It is a 1970s caper movie in Hollywood dressing. Yet, it also takes its investigative time. And is richly done.
Sneakers oddly reminds of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) with its rewound insight and forensic attention to the minute details. As Redford and co. wait for downloads and hacking access, the character downloads are where the film shines. Real-world experts served as consultants, including mathematicians who have made the biggest strides in algorithms, binary security, and the encryption services we all use today.
Sneakers was soon followed by Hackers and The Net (both 1995). Neither film successfully upgraded the already niche genre and dated instantly compared to Robinson’s history lesson on thirty-year-old hacking.
Now hacking and computer underworlds are a movie commonplace. 2012’s Skyfall not only has its own ‘Mother’ figure, it is also predicated on the cyber breadcrumbs, hidden hack cryptic notes and coding that Sneakers was playing around with twenty years before.
Rebooting back to Sneakers is a treat. And a lesson in time travel to when every moment of our lives could not always be traced and recorded.
Its ultimate take-away is that people matter over governments, systems and surveillance. And that people are damn cleverer anyways.
Sneakers is back on Blu-ray from 5 July. Pre-order here.
Watch: Ethan Hawke looks back at the death of River Phoenix