' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Sneakers (1992)

Friday, February 02, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: Sneakers (1992)

Even if the bad guy of “Sneakers” presciently predicts a future where data and information will be akin to the ultimate currency, the aesthetic and structure of Phil Alden Robinson’s 1992 proves old fashioned in so much as it eschews bold statements on the state of the world to merely engineer some quality entertainment. It stars Robert Redford, after all, co-star of “The Sting,” released in 1973 but set in 1936, and even despite its 1992 setting and release, “Sneakers” could have come straight from 1936 too, a technothriller as caper. It’s made from familiar ingredients, right down to reconfiguring the recording of a voice for a clever purpose. Another 1992 comedy caper throwback, “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” successfully did that too, proving that any conceit, new or ancient, is only as good as you render it. And though “Sneakers” hints at a leftist agenda in its opening and closing, these hints are conveyed, too, as something of a lark.

Redford is Martin Brice turned Martin Bishop, a fugitive since his days at Berkeley where he went on the run after deploying his immense skills in the name of semi-political agitation and now the leader of a motley crew of other tech ne’er-do-wells, including ex-CIA agent Donald Crease (Sydney Poitier), that tests bank’s security systems by breaking into them. That is what they’re doing as the movie opens, a deliberate feint underlining the movie’s all for fun ethos. Things get serious, in a manner of speaking, when two NSA agents, one played by Timothy Busfield, a dude born to play a retentive G-man, ask Martin and his team to steal a black box from a mathematician they claim is working for the Russians, reminding us how Russians as villains never really went out of style. That black box, however, proves to be a techno Ark of the Covenant, the ultimate codebreaker, an army that deploys it would be invincible, etc., and oh, those G-Men? Not G-Men, which puts Martin, already on the run, on the run with his whole team.

“Sneakers” is so committed to fun that even a sober cameo from James Earl Jones at movie’s end gets delightfully turned on its head, leaving him taken aback, sort of stammering, and us laughing. It’s also a moment evocative of the screenplay’s penchant for set-ups and payoffs. There all kinds of the latter built into this thing, none more enjoyable than the blind member of Martin’s team (David Straitharin) ending up at the wheel of the car, which James Horner’s accompanying score renders not as a moment of suspense or comedy but sort of glimmer-eyed triumph. Straithairn is also evidence of how the movie pays attention to its supporting characters, like Liz Ogilvy (Mary McDonnell), who might be Martin’s ex but proves more than that, holding her own and having fun, while Martin’s old pal Cosmo gives Ben Kingsley the opportunity to play a Bond villain. And when the hacking team prevents a call from being traced while using the aforementioned voice recording of another character, it’s a demonstration of both this team as just that and of Alden Robinson’s graceful direction to emphasize it.

Indeed, it’s Alden Robinson who stood out to me as much as Redford. Though there are plenty of crisply edited scenes, like the showdown between Martin and Cosmo, so many moments are wonders of fluid camerawork and expert blocking, single takes that aren’t about showy, swooping camerawork but more nimble intimacy. After Martin learns he has been fooled by the G-Men, “Sneakers” cuts to a shot of him looking out a rain-ridden window, itself kind of cheeky, before cutting to a shot inside, looking at Martin looking out the window from afar. Other characters then move to and fro within the shot, speaking, before Martin turns from the window and walks toward the camera and right into a close-up, an impeccable merging of filmmaker and star.

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