For his part, “Field of Dreams” director Phil Alden Robinson demonstrates an agreeable flair for low-key comedy, changing tones, and the orchestration of complicated logistics until falling into the black holes of gaping plot gaps and an insincere jokiness worthy of Sinatra’s Rat Pack.
After a small-screen, B&W prologue set in 1969 in which one college student escapes arrest while his buddy is carted off to jail for some pioneer computer hacking, film gets off to a good start with a mock break-in that demonstrates the skill of Redford’s company in cracking security systems.
Working out of a striking, glass-enclosed workshop in San Francisco (also the home of Gene Hackman’s professional eavesdropper in “The Conversation”), this gang of underpaid but fun-loving experts sports a full complement of shady backgrounds: Sidney Poitier was fired from the CIA after 22 years, Dan Aykroyd is an ex-con, David Strathairn is a blind wire-tapping and audio expert, and River Phoenix changed his school grades by computer.
As for Redford, he’s the kid who eluded capture and for more than 20 years has managed to avoid detection. Until, that is, two alleged agents from the top-secret National Security Agency enlist his services to recover a mysterious black box that turns out to contain the Code Breaker, a device that can penetrate the computer systems of the Federal Reserve, the nation’s electrical power grid, air traffic control and a host of other vital services that any government on earth would love to access.
For an hour, the script by Robinson and producers Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes (“WarGames”) maintains a clever, knowing, devil-may-care tone. But when three characters are suddenly murdered (two onscreen), things turn darker and more dire, as it turns out the boys are up against Redford’s criminal college cohort Ben Kingsley, who now sees a way, through the black box, to accomplish their student dream of changing the world, and to take revenge on Redford in the bargain.
Second half involves gunplay, Redford’s abduction, an elaborate siege of Kingsley’s seemingly impregnable H.Q., two confrontations between the old college buddies, some elaborate computer calculations and a very hokey climactic getaway. It’s all capped by government security honcho James Earl Jones bestowing, like some newfangled Wizard of Oz, what each member of the victorious crew most covets.
When the issues become more grave and expand into matters of life and death, the viewer can be expected to take matters more seriously as well. Unfortunately , second half of the script cannot support a more sober examination, as too many issues are ignored or glossed over.
Foremost among the boners is the sudden disappearance of Kingsley’s brigade of armed guards at his compound just at the moment when it is most needed– this alone will turn many viewers off just when the film should be reaching its action peak. It’s also hard to accept the sightless Strathairn piloting a van during the same sequence. Net effect of this dramatic inattention is to diminish the fun of what came before.
Still, there are pleasures to be had, notably in Robinson’s supremely confident, ultra-professional handling of filmmaking tools. Robinson shows a strong grasp of how to direct the viewer’s attention to what he wants to reveal, and the transitions between shots and between sequences are very well judged.
The film looks exceedingly expensive, and no doubt was. Helping Robinson achieve an air of technical mastery are John Lindley’s richly textured lensing, Patrizia von Brandenstein’s imaginative and varied production design keyed off of Bay Area locations, James Horner’s sparkling score and Tom Rolf’s alert editing, which only lets out a little slack toward the end.
Big-time cast provides sterling company, as the very casual demands put upon them allow the performers to convey the impression of enjoying a no-stress vacation. None of these mostly middle-aged actors has more than one level to act , but they all accomplish that with panache.