Sneakers – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched The Chase. The 1966 film, not the TV game show. It was full of simmering sexual tension and racism. The TV game show, not the 1966 film.

The Choice

We’re deep in the Redford forest now and it’s getting hard to find our way out. We should have left a breadcrumb trail. But what’s that behind that tree? Why it’s All Is Lost! And behind that rock? Oh, there’s Electric Horseman. And a wild Brubaker just flew overhead… But now what’s this snuffling through the undergrowth? Tim’s heading towards it… It sounds slightly familiar… could it be? It’s… Yes, it’s Sneakers!

Sneakers06

Sneakers and me

I’d seen Sneakers before, albeit a long time ago. Perhaps it was the first time it was shown on TV in (presumably) 1993 or thereabouts. I don’t remember much about it at all if I’m honest. Faint memories of Robert Redford… unsanctioned spy stuff… A Belushi perhaps?

Before the rewatch I expected it to be a solid, glossy, relatively unremarkable thriller. Was I right? Let’s find out…

IMDb says

Sneakers (1992): A security pro finds his past coming back to haunt him, when he and his unique team are tasked with retrieving a particularly important item. 7.1 stars.

I says

When we started this film club we tackled a fair few early 90s thrillers – stuff like Chain Reaction itself, The Net (urgh), and The Fugitive. While the latter still holds up pretty well, I don’t think time has been that kind to films of the era. Over the intervening couple of decades Tarantino’s (sometimes painful) influence on dialogue has been subsumed, and tension has ratcheted up time and again.

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Horny, Schlubby, Family-y, Leadery, Savanty

In some ways I think this film suffers more by comparison than others. Robert Redford leads a team of plucky outcasts (ex CIA family man Sidney Poitier, horny young guy River Phoenix, schlub Dan Ackroyd – whoops, not a Belushi – and blind savant David Strathairn) in a corporate spying outfit. We meet them doing a bank job, but wait! It wasn’t really a bank job! Twist! They had been hired by the bank to test their security.

 

A new job falls into their lap courtesy of a government agency, but all is not as it seems and soon enough Redford and co are in danger. A few twists, a few turns, but it all plays out in a fairly standard manner. So why has this film suffered in particular? There’s one scene that’s a prime example. As the film nears its climax the gang have to pull off a heist. Redford has to break into an office and steal something, but there’s a catch. Amongst the many security devices to foil is one that is movement triggered. Any movement over a certain speed will trigger the alarm. Cue training montage etc etc. Four years later Mission Impossible would come out and absolutely nail that kind of tense heist scene in a way that still makes it an oft-spoofed scene over 20 years later. The world of action thrillers moved on in 1996, and Sneakers was very much left in the dust.

It’s not only that – the script is trying a little too hard to make the gang slightly wacky. Jokes are overworked and so a film that should zip along gets bogged down. There’s a thankless role for Mary McDonnell as Redford’s former girlfriend (wonder if she’ll stay ‘former’? Hmmmm) co-opted into their heisting and tasked with seducing poor ol’ Stephen Tobolowsky’s nerdy computer dater. Weirdly, McDonnell reminded me a little of Maggie Gyllenhaal who would eventually play her daughter in Donnie Darko. That’s some canny casting.

Time hasn’t been kind to some aspects of Sneakers, but in other areas it has fared better. Spoilers coming… The central maguffin is a device that can hack into all US systems, and there’s a nice moment where Ben Kingsley (playing Redford’s former partner in crime who was imprisoned and thought dead) declares that world war three will be fought with information and it is already playing out.

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The annual Redford/Kinglsey staring competition was the actual inspiration for the film

And at the very end the NSA wants to hold on to the device to spy on other agencies… There’s some foreshadowing of the mass surveillance revelations over the last few years, and the election-meddling that seems likely to be a more and more prevalent form of covert international influence.

My favourite part though? Timothy Busfield’s different looks for pretending to be a government agent vs mafia (ish) goon:

The Verdict

Believe it or not, it’s a solid, glossy, unremarkable thriller. But, like its central star, it’s starting to show its age…

Coming Attractions

We’re so deep in the Redford forest that it’ll be some time before we’re out. I’m tempted to bring us back into the present with All Is Lost, or to 1967 for the film that was his big break – Barefoot in the Park.

Looking at his filmography, we’ve so far watched 11 Redford films as part of CRFC. Removing TV movies, series, shorts and VO only roles, Redford has been in 44 films. So we’re already a quarter of the way through… Just sayin’.

@BornToPootle

The Chase – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched Jeremiah Johnson and I STILL have Chandler singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” stuck in my head.

The Choice

The Chase 01

It was my choice this time around. We mutually decided that we’re sticking with Redford for the long haul, so that helped narrow down the options. We’d already discussed wanting to watch Brubaker, Sneakers, and a few others that at least one of us had seen many many years ago. But I wanted something new. By which I mean something old. Redford’s break came in 1967 with Barefoot in the Park, so I selected a film from just before then, when he was just some jobbing actor still. I went with The Chase.

The Chase and me

I’d never heard of The Chase before the Chain Reaction Film Club. And all I knew when we sat down to watch was the IMDB blurb (below) and that alongside Redford it also starred Marlon Brando as a sheriff, and Jane Fonda. Seemed plucky, but why had I never heard of it…?

IMDb says

The Chase (1966): The escape of Bubber Reeves from prison affects the inhabitants of a small Southern town. 7.3 stars.

I says

Expectation gap can be a terrible and a wonderful thing. While I’m sick of films being wilfully mis-sold by their trailers (more on that at the end), it’s also perfectly possible to sometimes just get the wrong end of the stick. That’s what happened with The Chase, and took about half the film for me to catch up.

From the title and the IMDb blurb I thought I knew roughly what I was in for. A convict on the run; a small town sheriff the only man who can catch him; a bit of tension, a bit of action, everything coated in a layer of dust.

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Sheriff Brando… No, YOU tell him his hat is silly

In actual fact The Chase is a sub-Tennessee Williams Southern melodrama, and probably all the better for it (having since looked up the writer, Horton Foote, I feel a bit bad about calling him sub-Tennessee Williams given he’s won the Pulitzer prize. But I do think it gives a sense of the tone).

Yes, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford) has escaped from prison. And yes, Marlon Brando is Sheriff Calder, the law man on the spot. But for starters it’s set contemporaneously (I think). And Redford is barely in it. Instead we spend an evening in Bubber’s home town which, purely accidentally, is where he’s headed. The town bigwig, an oil man, is hosting a birthday party to which the great and the good are invited, as is Sheriff Calder, who was installed in office by the bigwig himself. But the sheriff isn’t happy that the bigwig has bought his wife an ostentatious dress for the occasion. The sheriff isn’t to be bought so easily…

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Bubber Reeves on the run (and looking surprisingly like Mel Gibson)

PLUS the bigwig’s son Jake (James Fox) is in a marriage of convenience and both parties know they’re merely playing, but bigwig doesn’t understand… and Jake also happens to have always been in love with, and is carrying on an affair with his friend Bubber Reeves’ wife (Jane Fonda).

PLUS the bigwig’s earnest employee (Robert Duvall, would you believe) is also hosting a party, put out that the bigwig never invites him. But his wife is fairly openly having an affair, and happened to tell Bubber Reeves a couple of years ago that Duvall set him up for the first crime he was convicted of.

PLUS another employee of bigwig, the one Duvall’s wife is having an affair with, is married to a drunk and is a racist, just waiting for an excuse to teach a black man a lesson (with his two burly friends in tow, of course).

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Duvall is the life and soul of the party

PLUS there’s an elderly town snoop who… seems to be everywhere at once and know all the secrets.

PLUS Bubber Reeves’ mother thinks Sheriff Calder just wants to kill Bubber, but is arranging to sell her house to the town snoop in order to fund a lawyer. And she really blames herself for whatever has gone so wrong in Bubber’s life.

PLUS Bubber is implicated in a murder during the escape but Calder doesn’t bring in outside forces to catch him, in order to ensure he’ll live.

PLUS… I’m pretty sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten.

But what I mean is there’s a LOT going on here. Simmering sexual frustration, racism reaching boiling point, a town full of secrets that everyone knows really, a powder keg just waiting for notorious wild boy Reeves to come back and light the fuse.

And there’s the slight hole at the centre of all of this. Ten years earlier, Brando could have played Reeves (actually the part would’ve been too small for him I reckon, but it’s a Brando kind of part nonetheless). But Redford… isn’t that guy. It’s funny to think of a time before Redford was a star, before his screen persona, with its limits and its inversions, was etched in the mind. But he’s not a wild man. He’s not a kid that’s always been on the wrong side of the tracks. When his wife finally catches up to him near the end of the film he says something about looking terrible. But he has that chiselled jaw, not a hair out of place and might as well just have taken a bath. He looks like young Robert Redford goddamnit, not a wild con on the run with a troubled history.

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So wild. Such danger.

It’s not enough to spoil the film, but I think it’s part of the reason I’d not heard of it. Cast someone properly dangerous in that role and it could elevate the whole shebang.

Oh, and there’s some INCREDIBLE dancing.

If you’re interested, the two recentish films that win joint Most Mis-sold awards from me are It Comes at Night and Inherent Vice. It Comes at Night trailers made it look like a traditional jump scare horror. In fact it was hellishly tense and horrific, but not a standard popcorn-in-the-air horror. It was one of my favourite films of that year, but I think some audiences were disappointed because they were expecting something else. And Inherent Vice had one of the funniest trailers I’d ever seen. It was great – I still quote it in fact (“molto pancaku!”). But the film is a sluggish, stoned bore.

The Verdict

Perhaps not an overlooked classic, but there’s much to recommend if you can chase it down.

Coming Attractions

We’re sticking with Redford. Expect Brubaker, Sneakers, Electric Horseman and The Sting at the very least before we move on…

@BornToPootle

Jeremiah Johnson – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched 1972’s The Candidate, and it failed to get my vote.

The Choice

It was Tim’s choice this week, and he was pretty clear about his intention to stick with Redford. His shortlist was narrowed down to 1966 film The Chase starring Redford as a convict captured by Marlon Brando’s sheriff, Downhill Racer from 1969 which is about skiing, and Jeremiah Johnson, a Western from 1972.

We’ve recently watched a couple of 1972 Westerns – Pocket Money and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Neither were particularly good. So bearing in mind the law of averages, Tim went ahead and picked Jeremiah Johnson. And that’s why I’ve had Chandler Bing singing “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” stuck in my head for a week.

Jeremiah 01

The Link

It’s Redford again. See the last few posts for more on him. Here’s a couple of related facts though… Apparently he owned 600 acres of land in Utah where much of this was filmed. And at one time or another he has declared it to be his favourite of his own films.

Jeremiah Johnson and me

This is another I hadn’t heard of before scouring his filmography for this very blog. The poster made me think it was going to be a very slow affair with lots of handsome cinematography.

Jeremiah 03

Spoiler: I was right about the handsome cinematography

IMDb says

Jeremiah Johnson (1972): A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians, and proves to be a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat on the early frontier. 7.6 stars.

I says

Let’s just take a moment to break that IMDb blurb (which I read before watching the film) down.

‘A mountain man who wishes to live the life of a hermit’ – this is set up in the first couple of minutes.

‘becomes the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians, and proves to be a match for their warriors in one-on-one combat on the early frontier.’ – this is the last twenty minutes of the film. Thanks IMDb.

Jeremiah 02

Impressive crags

So as Redford’s Johnson (snigger) bumbled through his first weeks in the mountains, then became adept, then saved a young boy who became a surrogate son, then was gifted a wife by a tribe of native Americans who he at first struggled to communicate with then finally they fell for each other, all I was doing was waiting for him to become ‘the unwilling object of a long vendetta by Indians etc etc etc’.

I mean it wasn’t necessarily unpredictable, but they could have give me a chance. Hey ho.

So spoilers aside, what did I think? The Westerns of the 70s that we’ve watched (the two from 1972 mentioned above plus The Ballad of Cable Hogue) all have a very broad sense of humour. Jeremiah Johnson doesn’t feature the sped-up-Benny-Hill style bits of Cable Hogue or Roy Bean, but there are a some quasi-slapstick moments. That’s juxtaposed next to some really bleak stuff about a woman driven mad by her family’s slaughter and other such sobering stuff. The trouble is, when the vendetta begins and solo assassins come for him, it’s faintly comical. One hides in a snow covered bush and bursts forth, only to be clobbered by Redford’s Johnson (double snigger). Perhaps that’s the aim and I just don’t get the 70s style/sense of humour. But my impression going in was that it would be slow and handsome; to its credit it was indeed the latter, but not the former.

Moving on, it’s always tricky to know whether to judge some aspects of films by the standards of today or not, so I’m just going to ponder a casting decision quickly as I don’t think it’s something to ignore. Not all the Native Americans are played by Native Americans. This isn’t particularly surprising I suppose. I’ve started working for a union and have been thinking more about this (being white, male and cis casting opportunities is not something I’ve had to contend with much in my own life).

The union I work for deals with the entertainment industry in the UK, and our casting policy is that, where there are groups that are in need of equality (such as minority ethnic, disabled, LGBT+) and a particular characteristic of that minority is integral to a role, people who have that characteristic should be seen. So a recent example (not within our jurisdiction) is the casting of Bryan Cranston as a wheelchair user. There was a fair bit of press and some terribly dull thinkpieces were published. The union’s position is not to comment on the ultimate casting decision (the creative process has many pressures, after all), but to comment on the casting process. Were disabled actors seen for the role? If not, if there wasn’t any opportunity for disabled actors to get the role (when they are almost never considered for non-specifically disabled roles) then there’s a problem.

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Jeremiah Jonson and his… Native American… spouse

So bearing all of that in mind, I read that for the role of Johnson’s wife, a Native American girl who has something approaching a character arc, 200 Native American women were seen (yay). And yet they cast someone of completely different heritage. And the actress went on to do precisely one more bit of acting, in an episode of Two and a Half Men some 30 something years later. I’m sure none of the Native American actresses were right for the part…

Oh, also worth mentioning is that the film is based on a couple of books, one of them a biography of Liver-Eating Johnson, the Crow Killer. So, uh, there’s that.

The Verdict

I’ve now seen Robert Redford’s Johnson; I’ve seen better.

Coming Attractions

I’m up next. I’m giving serious thought to finishing our Redford season by picking The Sting and getting back to Newman. But I’ve not seen Sneakers in a long time, Brubaker is tempting and so is All Is Lost.

We shall see…

@BornToPootle