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‘Sneakers’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 11, 1992

If you think of "Sneakers" as a slick, updated "Mission: Impossible," it's a lot of fun. It revels in the excitement of breaking security codes, slipping past guards and getting to the prize. It's got the acutely dangerous mission, the walkie-talkie suspense and the right team -- Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix and David Strathairn -- to pull it off.

Known as "sneakers," the five men are hired by corporations to test those companies' security systems. They creep into guarded buildings, tap into vulnerable computers and generally raid the store. Their mercenary occupation is threatened when two shady government types, including Timothy Busfield, make the hackers an offer they can't refuse.

Seems the G-men have the background goods on everyone, including computer infiltrator Redford, who's been on the run from the FBI since the 1960s. All Redford and company have to do is locate a strategic black box. However, the more they discover about this information-age Pandora's box, the less they like the idea of its falling into Busfield's hands.

Created by producer-writers Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker, the mystery unfolds with the technological, cataclysmic thrills of their previous "WarGames." Director/co-writer Phil Alden Robinson, who directed "Field of Dreams," engenders a bouncy, amusing air among the principals. With so many familiar faces, including Ben Kingsley and Mary McDonnell, it's hard to believe these guys are really the characters they play. But the collective talent makes for very entertaining camaraderie. The movie plays as a comedy as much as a thriller.

In the funniest scene of all, Redford, keeping radio contact with his compatriots via a hidden microphone, sneaks into a mathematician's office to retrieve the all-important box. When he's caught by the mathematician's mistress, the flustered Redford has to improvise, with his cohorts whispering suggestions Cyrano de Bergerac-style into his ear.

Aykroyd is a scream as a genius who harbors a delusionary infinity of conspiracy theories. He believes the Apollo landings were a hoax and that nefarious cattle mutilation is being carried on.

At one point, he asserts that the CIA's director of operations arrived in Nicaragua the day before an earthquake rocked the country. Asked whether the two events are connected, Aykroyd testily replies, "Well, I can't prove it."

Everyone has his moments, including Poitier as an amusingly flappable former CIA officer and McDonnell, who, as the team's secret ally, has to flirt with nerdy enemy Stephen Tobolowsky. In his role as a blind sound technician with a gift for non-visual perception, Strathairn is also memorable. When Redford returns after being whisked away in the trunk of a car to a mysterious location, Strathairn makes him recall the sound of the road surface. From this he deduces where Redford was taken.

Unfortunately, the movie gets in too deep with the cutesome stuff, especially in the final sequence when the team bangs out a deal with a powerful government negotiator. Suddenly, it seems, we're watching a '90s version of "The Wizard of Oz," as Poitier demands that trip to Europe and Tahiti he's always wanted, Redford asks for his record to be wiped, Dorothy demands a way back to Kansas and the Scarecrow . . .

When the government negotiator (whose extremely famous identity needs to be preserved for its last-minute surprise) retorts, "I think I'm going to be sick," it's highly appropriate.

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