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‘Sneakers’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 09, 1992

A band of lovable misfits saves capitalism from certain ruin in "Sneakers," a clicky techno-thriller on the order of "The Seven Samurai" with computer nerds. Robert Redford finds he can still sundance as Martin Bishop, an insouciant electronics whiz who is coerced into a covert operation by the mysterious National Security Agency. His next-to-impossible mission: to secure a code unscrambler from the enemies of the NSA, a cabal right out of "JFK," complete with the Russians, the Mafia, the FBI and the CIA.

Despite all the crypto-crats and political claptrap, this is a boisterously funny no-brainer. It begins with a flashback to the '60s, when compu-hippie Bishop went underground to escape the feds. They didn't see the radical chic in his illegally transferring GOP funds into the Black Panther Party's checking account. Now the head of a struggling security business, he is unearthed by the NSA, which offers to clear his record if he and his team of happy hackers will heist a top-secret black box from the San Francisco scientist who invented it.

Further inspired by the promise of a monetary reward, the team develops an intricate scheme for snatching the black box, which holds a microchip capable of accessing all the computer networks in America. Alas, the black box falls into the hands of a megalomaniac in a ponytail (Ben Kingsley), who plans to destroy all data pertaining to property -- stock transfers, deeds, patents etc. -- so there will be "no more rich people and no more poor people." Now the sneakers must devise a plan six times as elaborate to retrieve the black box from a fortress guarded by motion sensors and voiceprint sentries in addition to the usual dogs and whistles.

Phil Alden Robinson of "Field of Dreams" directed and co-wrote the screenplay with the movie's producers, Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker of the compu-thriller "WarGames." Robinson indulges a geeky fascination for the gimcracks and gadgetry, the blinking, bleeping bytes and pieces, but he never cheats the human side of the cast, whose blithe take reminds us of schoolkids playing hooky at a clangorous video arcade.

Though Redford takes a pratfall, wryly noting, "I'm too old for this," Dan Aykroyd is the featured funny man as Mother, an ex-con who believes there is a conspiracy behind everything -- "Cattle mutilations are up" -- to the irritation of Sidney Poitier, as Crease, an edgy ex-CIA man forced into early retirement. David Strathairn is the handicapped member of the PC team, as a blind sonics expert who teaches the others to see with their ears.

The team also includes River Phoenix, sweetly underwhelming as the youngest sneaker, and Mary McDonnell, will-o-the-wispily engaging as the fed-up former girlfriend of the hero. She's not the love interest, but the software. A teacher of gifted children, she is forever reminding the boys that they haven't grown up yet, which is strictly irrelevant under the circumstances. "Sneakers" isn't about growing up, it's about playing games, cracking codes, inventing acronyms. It's a Twinkie for techies, an enormously entertaining time-waster.

"Sneakers" is rated PG-13 for profanity and violence.

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