Sneakers is an agreeably lightweight caper thriller that has absolutely nothing to do with Reeboks or basketball. The movie should appeal to anyone who used to watch Mission: Impossible eagerly anticipating the moment when Barney, the deadpan electronics expert, would enter some circuit-laden nerve center and alter the fate of the Western world with a few deft twists of his screwdriver. In Sneakers, we get a whole team of Barneys. The movie is about a crew of eccentric techno-wizards who have banded together for fun and profit. Their leader, Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), is a protohacker from the ’60s who has been living underground for 22 years, ever since the cops caught up with him and his partner, Cosmo. (Cosmo went to jail, and Bishop, who was picking up a pizza, escaped.) Now he and his fellow outcast geniuses are like spies without a country.
In one scene, Bishop returns to headquarters after having been locked in a car trunk by a mysterious enemy. How can they find out in which direction he was taken? Easy: Whistler (David Strathairn), who’s blind but a sonic genius, uses his computer synthesizer to create the sound car tires would make going over San Francisco’s four main bridges. Later our boys make a duplicitous phone call to the National Security Agency. How can they avoid being traced? Easy: Bounce the call through 10 cities and off two satellites. Scenes like these are at once funny and comforting—funny because the characters’ cleverness becomes a brainy form of one-upmanship, and comforting because, for those of us who can barely figure out how to program our VCRs, the movie offers the vicarious thrill of controlling the entire world through gadgets.
The director, Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams), is trying for a cross between WarGames (1983) and Francis Coppola’s wiretap psychodrama The Conversation (1974). There’s just one problem: The plot he has concocted is weightless—even for a throwaway movie like this one. There’s a MacGuffin, a mysterious black box that enables its owner to…to what? Well, to access great gobs of top secret information. Call it World Domination Lite. Who wants the box? Bishop’s old partner, the elusive Cosmo (Ben Kingsley). Back in the ’60s, these two were hipster eggheads with a Cause. They would tap into the files of, say, the Republican Party and arrange a donation to the Black Panthers. But then their dream of revolution by computer died.
Robinson wants to tip his hat to the dream. In Sneakers, he tries to celebrate a world in which the flow of information trumps everything else. The trouble is, information of this sort—flashing blips on a computer screen—is an awfully abstract thing for an audience to stay excited about. Whenever the heroes of Sneakers step away from their brilliant machines, the movie drags, because there’s nothing at stake. Robinson’s biggest miscalculation was failing to devise an ingenious, computer-driven climax. The film boils down to a bunch of guys trying to break into a building and steal something.
Fortunately, the actors have just the right fluffy nonchalance. Redford has finally remembered how to enjoy himself without working at it (as he did in the laborious Legal Eagles). In Sneakers, he looks younger than he has in years. His smile flashes with its old confident ease, and his soft-shoe relaxation is infectious. The other computer outlaws are too sketchily written, but they’re pleasant company—especially Dan Aykroyd as Mother, who offers a conspiracy theory about everything, and Strathairn’s Whistler, who has the stoned concentration of someone with ears like radar. As the suavely tormented Cosmo, Ben Kingsley is commanding enough to suggest he should play megalomaniacs more often. Sneakers often feels like it was made by a computer, but with a cast this likable you can watch it without feeling programmed.