Spy 100, #56: Sneakers

Sneakers (1992) is one of those movies bizarrely warped by time and memory. I saw this back when it came out and remember it as a cutting edge, sophisticated, and comedic reinterpreation of Mission: Impossible. Now it screens like a relic of its era, broadly executed, riddled with clichés, and sadly dated. I still got a kick out of it this time around, but compared to my fond first impression, the reaction this time is definitely mixed.

Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) runs a rag-tag team of former criminals and law enforcement types who specialize in testing the security of banks by robbing them, then reporting on their vulnerabilities. But Bishop has a shady past, one that’s sussed out by the NSA, who blackmail him into stealing a mysterious device from a brilliant mathematician. The team executes the heist, but before handing off the device, they can’t resist taking a look at it — only to discover it’s a much more dangerous object than they were led to believe. Suddenly the team is in over its head, in the crosshairs of the nefarious Cosmo (Ben Kingsley), who wants to use the device to crash the world economy.

Sneakers owes massive debts to earlier caper stories; gambits and tactics seem lifted wholesale from the original Mission: Impossible, while its general tone is reminiscent of the classic heist film Topkapi. It may well have influenced later ones, too, almost feeling like a direct ancestor of the TV show Leverage, for example. So it falls squarely in the heist tradition, and on the whole it’s not an unworthy entry. Redford is great in this kind of thing, and he centers the action perfectly. The creatively cast team includes adequate work from Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, and David Straithairn. But it’s Mary McDonnell who stands out, as the team’s reluctant Cinnamon Carter figure. (After all the suffering she endured on Battlestar Galactica recently, it’s nice to see her having some fun in this early role!) The stakes are suitably high, the broader plot is well structured with the requisite twists and complications, and the pace is nicely clocked.

Alas, the film hasn’t aged all that well. Viewed from a contemporary perspective, its computer wizardry, high-tech gadgetry, and surveillance tech all comes across a bit crude and hand-wavy. Similarly, much of the dialogue feels generic or pro forma, and Kingsley’s weirdly accented villain is kind of a clichéd Bond nemesis. In its less-convincing moments, it feels more silly than slick.

That said, it’s not without its charms, and injects some much-needed light-heartedness into the list’s generally sober and cynical proceedings. I probably wouldn’t have ranked it this highly, but I can certainly see why it’s included.

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