Sleepers * * * 1/2

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Director: Barry Levinson.
Screenplay: Barry Levinson.
Starring: Jason Patric, Robert DeNiro, Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Bacon, Minnie Driver, Ron Eldard, Billy Crudup, Brad Renfro, Joe Perrino, Geoffrey Wigdor, Jonathan Tucker, Bruno Kirby, Vittorio Gassman, Terry Kinney, Frank Medrano, Aida Turturro, Dash Mihok.

After the massive box-office flop of “Toys” in 1992 and the overlooked, straight to dvd, “Jimmy Hollywood“, director Barry Levinson seemed to be in need of some stronger material. As a result, he decided on a couple of adaptations; the first was Michael Crichton’s “Disclosure” followed by “Sleepers“, the controversial novel by Lorenzo Carcaterra, which served as a reminder that Levinson still had something to offer.

Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, four close friends, Shakes (Joe Perinno), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoffrey Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) fill their days playing pranks and making their own entertainment. However, one of their pranks lead to a man getting seriously injured and they are sentenced to time in the Wilkenson Detention Centre in upstate New York. In the centre they are subjected to beatings and sexual abuse by the guards. Over ten years later, two of the boys take revenge on one of them (Kevin Bacon), which drags up the past and involves everyone they know.

What we have with “Sleepers” is a stellar cast, a more than capable director and a story that’s purportedly based on fact. There’s really not that far you can wrong in these instances but, unfortunately, it’s the “based on fact” angle that let’s this film down. Everything else is handled with skill, but no matter how well it’s delivered, it leaves an aroma that smells vaguely of garbage. It’s too far fetched and under closer scrutiny and investigation, the events that writer Lorenzo Carcaterra claims to be true, are unfounded. There simply isn’t any evidence of them. Now, if this film just played out as a piece of storytelling then that issue wouldn’t exist and you’d be able to sit back and enjoy what this film has to offer. And what it has to offer is plentiful. The cinematography by (Scorsese regular) Michael Ballhaus, captures the look and feel for the times that reflect, in some ways, an urban version of “Stand By Me” in the earlier part of the film and Levinson does a very professional job on his direction duties. Where his strength lies is in drawing out brilliant performances from his impressively assembled cast: Throughout an abundance of familiar names, it’s Patric (playing writer, Carcaterra) that get’s the most focus but the rest still get enough to work with; Bacon verges on the stereotypical side but still channels an effective sadistic presence; Pitt, in a lesser role (when he was still on the rise) captures the cocksure arrogance required and the always reliable and masterful Hoffman brings a lot of depth and humour with his subtle mannerisms. At the risk of sounding biased, though, it’s DeNiro that impresses most as the avuncular priest, Father Bobby. He delivers one of the most endearing and charismatic performances of his career and happens to have a moment in the film where his expression is solely focussed on, as he hears about the tragic and abusive events that took place. He doesn’t utter a word, but his pain, anguish and compassion is expressed entirely and powerfully within his eyes. The only drawback amongst the performances is that the greats of DeNiro and Hoffman don’t get a chance to share much screen time together. (In fairness, Levinson rectified this in his later movie “Wag The Dog” and subsequently they have shared the screen in the “Meet The Parents” sequels). These two fantastic actors have never really went toe-to-toe on dramatic terms, though, and this film seems like a missed opportunity on that level. As for the structure itself, it’s a film of two halves; the first concentrating on the boys’ high jinks (again, with great performances from it’s young actors – Joe Perrino and Brad Renfro being the standouts) while the latter half descends into a formulaic courtroom drama which stretches credulity and eschews any form of logic in order to further the plot. It’s during this, that the “true” nature of the story becomes seriously questionable and we’re also left with an overhanging, dubious message on justice. Despite these issues, though, there are many highlights to be found and at nearly two and half hours long, it’s never dull. Whether or not it’s true is another matter, but at the very least, Carcaterra has written an emotional and involving tale.

Flawed and uneven, with a conclusion that simply doesn’t convince, but if you’re able to sidestep these faults then there’s still a very good film at it’s core.

Mark Walker

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27 Responses to “Sleepers * * * 1/2”

  1. I’ve been recommended this a couple of times before. The premise does sound intriguing and it has a good cast, so I may check it out, even if it is flawed. Nice review.

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    • It is definitely flawed, no doubt about that but I still found plenty to enjoy. The cast is great but its disappointing not to see a lot of interplay between them. Still worth a look, though.

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  2. I dont remember much about this one other than being disappointed by it when it was in theatres. Given the cast, I had much higher expectations. 😦 Your review reminds me why, although you do give it some faint praise…

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    • I can see why you would be disappointed Fogs. It certainly doesn’t live up to what it could have been. It could have been something very special indeed. On the hand, there is a lot to admire. The performances are brilliant and Levinson keeps it rolling nicely despite the lenghty running time. I enjoyed having another look at this after all this time.

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  3. I remember watching this young, and I was very shocked at the subject matter (the abuse). It was probably the first time I watched a dramatically ‘talky’ movie and wasn’t bored, given how young I was. I’m talking 8-9 years here. So I have memories of it being better than you mention here, but that could just be the follies of youth.

    It actually introduced me to riveting dramas at an age where I didn’t expect to like stuff like that. So this movie for me will always be held in high regard.

    I’ve never really cared about how based in fact, or not, a film is, as long as it can stand on its own, be entertaining and engaging, which this movie does.

    But you do bring up some great points. And very well thought out review. I should revisit this to see how I feel about it now.

    Reddited by the way:
    http://www.reddit.com/r/moviecritic/comments/1e1vdz/sleepers_does_basis_of_fact_in_a_true_story_make/

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    • I actually remember this fondly as well Shah. When I was younger, it had a bit more of an impact on me too. I still enjoyed it and thought there were many things to recommend it but overall the story lacked a very important ingredient: Logic. It didn’t convince and even if you take the “true life” element out of it, it still wouldn’t convince. That being said, it’s delivered very well other than that. Hope you do check it out again.

      Thanks for commenting and for sharing buddy. Very much appreciated.

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  4. Great post, Mark. I’ve heard so many good things about this one. I’ll have to check it out. The cast is awesome.

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  5. Never really liked his one to be honest. Not seen it for while so now that I am a more ‘educated’ buff I may find it a wee bit better. Let’s face it Bob is never shit is he!?

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    • Bob is never shit, man. He underplays to perfection here and delivers a very appealing character.
      Sorry to hear it didn’t really do it for you. I don’t think it’s a classic but I’ve always had good things to say about it. Still do.

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  6. I think I have this at home somewhere but have never watched it. I’ll get round to it eventually but I’ve got plenty of other stuff I’ll probably watch first. Great cast though! Nice review bud.

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    • Cheers Chris. Don’t exclude this entirely. It’s a decent flick with excellent performances. If the story were tighter then it could have been a great movie, instead of a good one.

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  7. I’ve always been a big Jason Patric fan but I never could get in to this….

    great work, Mark!!!

    Boat Drinks!

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    • I’m a fan of all the actors involved here Eric and I couldn’t fault any of them. The issues with the film are not theirs at all. I’m actually quite surprised that so many people didn’t like this. I didn’t think it was that bad.

      Thanks though, bro.
      As always…

      Boat Drinks!

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  8. This one was pretty disturbing…a tough watch. Nice review Mark.

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  9. Wow, I’m surprised I haven’t seen this one yet. What a stellar cast! Obviously there’s the big stars DeNiro and Pitt but I actually like Minnie Driver & Billy Crudup so nice to see ’em here also. Sounds like it could be difficult to watch but I’m prepared to give it a go since it’s on Netflix Streaming. Thanks Mark!

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    • Yep! The cast is indeed impressive Ruth and they all deliver fine performances. Crudup in fairness doesn’t get much to work with but as far as I’m aware this was his film debut. He was just starting out. The material is a bit grim but not graphic. I think you might find something to work with here Ruth. I look forward to your thoughts on it.

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      • Oh I can handle a bit of grim, it’s the graphic and extreme violence that I can’t handle. I’ll definitely give this a look Mark, your review is quite convincing. Too bad it’s not as good as it could be but man, you gotta check it out just for this cast!

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      • It could have been a bit better Ruth but it’s still good enough. I liked it a lot and did consider rating it slightly higher but some of the plot just didn’t convince enough. Watch out for te scene with DeNiro where it focuses soley on him without him speaking. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. This is a small example of the very reason why I think he’s the finest in business.

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  10. I really liked it…..didn’t have any issues really. Nice write up as always chief πŸ™‚

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    • Cheers boss! I do remember liking it better in the past but I still like now. It stood up well despite some flaws that I couldn’t entirely overcome. It was when we got to talking the other week that I thought I’d revisit it. I don’t regret it, it was good. 3.5 is still a respectable rating.

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  11. I don’t know what it is about Sleepers, but I love everything about this movie. Actually, it’s one of my favorite films of the ’90s. I love its nostalgia, its authentic street cred, its courtroom theatrics. And that cast… man, I just love it all.

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    • I can feel your enthusiasm in that comment alone Alex. πŸ˜‰
      You point out a few of his highlights there. The only one that jarred with me was the courtroom theatrics. I enjoyed that side to it but it didn’t quite convince me. That being said, there is still plenty to admire.

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  12. Mark, I assume you have painted your face blue, picked up a battle axe and are busy forcing the English off Scottish soil. Well at least that is what I have been telling people.

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    • Haha! I know I’ve been absent for a while but I’m slowly getting back into it.

      You’re not that far off there Adam. I have been rolling around in the muck with certain implements at hand and Scotland will be getting a vote very soon to break away as a separate country on it’s own right. That’s a fine assumption my friend. πŸ˜‰

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