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SLEEPERS

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Minnie Driver
Director: Barry Levinson
Audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Theatrical Trailer
Length: 148 Minutes
Release Date: September 3, 1997

Film ****

Sleepers could easily win the award for best ensemble cast to ever appear in a film, in which case every big named star gets a lot of screen time, instead of some of the actors being limited to just one or two scenes. How often will we ever get a movie that has Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, and Minnie Driver in the same movie, directed by no less than Barry Levinson? The film is a heartbreaking epic of abuse, revenge, and pure loyalty, set in the dark violent underworld of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Each of the themes mentioned are dealt with in an honest and most uncompromising manner. Some scenes display much brutality, and will be difficult for some viewers to watch. The movie argues for revenge of a most lethal nature, which is only extracted by those who suffered nightmarish abuse in their younger years. It is based on a best selling novel of the same name, which is supposedly based on a true story, which the movie claims as well, though there has been some controversy as to whether the story is really true, but Sleepers remains for me one of the most gripping movies of the last decade.

The film opens in Hell’s Kitchen in 1966, as we are introduced to the four central characters of the story. Shakes (Joseph Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), and John (Geoffrey Wigdor) are friends who are the definition of inseparable. Their daily lives consists of two things, innocent pranks, and helping their neighborhood catholic church. The moral values of the neighborhood are drawn by two men who are on opposite ends. On the one side, there’s neighborhood gangster King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), and on the other side there’s catholic priest Father Bobby (Robert De Niro). One day, Shakes goes to King Benny, asking him if he desires a delivery boy. The four boys soon find themselves working for the mobster, but only for legitimate dealings, against the wishes of Father Bobby, who was once a criminal, but is now redeemed as a loyal servant of God.

Then one day, the lives of the four boys are altered forever. They pull a prank that consists of running off with a hot dog vendor. The harmless prank goes unintentionally wrong when the vendor rolls down a flight of steps, and nearly crushing a man to death. The four are then sentenced to a year at a juvenile facility. It is there where their nightmares begin. The sadistic head security guard named Nokes (Kevin Bacon), subjects the boys to physical, mental, and sexual abuse. The attacks on them are continuous all through their sentence, and from this point on, the fate of a couple of the boys has already been sealed.

The film then jumps to 1981. Two men, around 30 and criminals themselves, cruise into a neighborhood restaurant, and encounter no less than Nokes himself. They engage in a conversation not long before brutally gunning him down right then and there. The two murderers turn out to be John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup). This incident will result in a reunion of the four men in a sleek game of conning and revenge. Shakes (Jason Patric) is now a newspaper reporter, and Michael (Brad Pitt) is now a prosecuting attorney who will take John and Tommy’s case in order to lose and set the two men free. The case will be fixed at the hands of Michael and King Benny, who hires burned-out defense attorney Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) to defend John and Tommy. There’s even a moment where Shakes asks Father Bobby to take the stand to defend the two. “You’re asking me to lie?” Bobby asks. “No, I’m asking you to save two of our boys”, replies Shakes.

Sleepers is as gripping as movies get. It’s an account that is brutally honest, and extremely wonderfully told. Director Barry Levinson has translated the best selling novel to create one of the director’s very best movies to date. The cast is simply one for the history books, led by a another great performance from De Niro, and everyone else in the movie does an equally superb job. The film’s closing moment will likely bring a tear of happiness to your eye, as it does with me every viewing. On every account, a grand Hollywood epic.

Video ***

A grand video transfer by Warners, in one of the first issuings on DVD. The only complaint I basically have about it is that in order to view the entire movie, you have to flip the disc over. This feature always got on my nerves, and I certainly wished that Warners had started using dual layering for their discs. Other than that complaint, this anamorphic presentation is fairly crisp and clear, if not grainy for a scene or two, but an overall noteworthy job.

Audio ***

A fairly good audio job from Warner. The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation shines good for this film, although it is essentially a movie made up mostly of dialogue, so other than the soundtrack and a few instances of gun firing, there isn’t really much to rate here. But for what it is, the audio quality is a very high caliber one.

Features **

Only a trailer (but a very good one), and some cast and crew information.

Summary:

Sleepers should be seen by fans of dramatic films. Rich with great characters and a deeply moving story, it’s a wonderful epic of a movie that will stir your emotions, make you tense, and by the end, will have you undoubtedly cheering.