Back in 1969, around Christmastime, Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) was going by his real name and hacking with his friend Cosmo (Ben Kingsley) into various high profile bank accounts, like that of the Republican Party, and transferring their funds to what they judged to be better causes. Alas, they were found out, and just as Martin left the building to get pizza the police arrived, Cosmo was arrested and later imprisoned. Martin escaped, and now, in the present day of the nineties, he is carrying out a heist with his crew of technicians. The operation goes without a hitch, and they manage to steal a large amount of cash but don't keep it as they are actually carrying out an investigation into the security of the bank they've just robbed - they still get paid well for their trouble, of course. However, a new job sees them embroiled with a plot bigger than anything they could have imagined...
Scripted by the director Phil Alden Robinson with Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker (the writers of WarGames), Sneakers was an easygoing, comfortably moderate hit back when it was released. It made no secret of appealing to the technophiles in the audience with its trappings of computers and ingenious gadgets, all the better for finding out information that ordinary people were not supposed to know - watching it was like gaining acceptance into a secret club. Add a cast that was mostly made up of veterans, with River Phoenix included to catch the younger market (although his fans may feel a little let down by his lack of a central role here), and you had a film which took the idealism of youth and looked at it with more mature eyes, as the team are eventually made to question their motives.
Along with leader Redford and boyish recruit Phoenix, the team are a motley one, but not so that they don't all get along famously; well, just about. Sidney Poitier plays Crease, an ex-C.I.A. agent who was expelled for unknown reasons, Dan Aykroyd is the mildly comic relief Mother, a conspiracy nut who drives Crease up the wall with his wild theories (J.F.K is still alive, that sort of thing), and David Strathairn is Whistler, a blind hacker who uses a braille keyboard (and reads a braille Playboy), using a keen sense of hearing to his advantage. When their latest job comes up, it is to steal a little black box from a boffin who happens to be in town, and their client is the National Security Agency who threaten to expose Martin's shady past as a wanted man if he doesn't comply.
This means Martin enlists the female member of his team, old flame Liz (Mary McDonnell), to assist him although she is reluctant at first, not wishing to rekindle their relationship. The ensemble cast make a pretty good troupe themselves, winning you over with their relaxed style - perhaps a little too relaxed, as the tension in the suspense sequences is generally lacking. Gently comic episodes follow, with the boffin being spied on, and his little black box being duly stolen after a convoluted set-up. However, when Martin goes to deliver the object to the N.S.A., what do you know? They're not the N.S.A. after all, and have just killed the boffin to keep him out of the way. The box, it transpires, contains a chip which will break any code, meaning any computer system in the world is wide open to corruption, and now a lot of dangerous people are after it, with Martin and company caught in the middle.
You may have noticed that one of the stars isn't taking too prominent a role; Kingsley doesn't appear until around an hour into the action, his younger self having been played by a different actor in the prologue (both Kingsley and Redford's lookalikes aren't well cast - a big blonde moustache doesn't necessarily make you look like the Sundance Kid). Anyway, in a development that will surprise few, Cosmo is the megalomaniac behind the search for the chip, which is a bit of a letdown as he's more like a Bond villiain; maybe having him work for a rogue element of a government would have been more satisfying? Or at least give him some more background to make his international crime organisation more believable?
Nevertheless Sneakers provides as many thrills as you would want from what is basically a cross between a sixties caper comedy (a twist is lifted straight from Rock Hudson movie Blindfold) and a seventies paranoia movie. The nineties were shaping up to be pretty paranoid too, but the film is too clean cut, antiseptic even, when a grittier atmosphere would have served the plot better. Scenes reminscent of Rififi or Topkapi (appropriately Martin has to move as slowly as possible during the biggest robbery highlight), and a bit featuring a computer link being traced that is surprisingly exciting given how dull such things usually are, are compensations, and Sneakers should leave you entertained and feeling as if you've spent time amongst colourful characters, even if it's all too slick for its own good. Whistler never did have his wish come true, did he? Music by James Horner.