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