With its colorful characters, richly evoked settings, epic story of friendship, crime and punishment, and a strong dose of good old-fashioned star power, Barry Levinson’s “Sleepers” should be a potent fall performer. Owing a lot to Martin Scorsese’s New York films about petty gangsters and goodfellas, the film, based on Lorenzo Carcaterra’s controversial semi-autobiography, is shrewdly packaged to appeal to a mass audience, though its revenge theme carries a questionable message.
Basically an ensemble piece, pic is notable for being the first to co-star two of the top actors of their generation, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, who give solid performances as a fatherly priest and washed-up attorney, respectively. Hoffman’s is the lesser role, but the actor makes the most of his material.
Levinson’s best films have focused on friendship, and friendship proves to be the central theme of this evocative tale of four teenagers whose lives are irreparably changed by one foolhardy moment of unthinking recklessness.
Story kicks off in the summer of 1966 in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, which was according to narration spoken by Jason Patric populated “by hard men living hard lives.” Levinson deftly sketches in the backdrop against which four friends, about age 14, hang out, an environment controlled by priests and gangsters, and where “outside” crime is severely punished.
In this enclosed world, where domestic violence is “a cottage industry” but where divorce is almost unknown, thanks to the power of the Church, the boys Lorenzo, nicknamed Shakes (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoff Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) spend as little time at home as possible; their best friend is the local priest, Father Bobby (De Niro), a latter-day Spencer Tracy who plays sports with them and counsels them on every aspect of life.
The other father figure who fascinates the quartet is King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), an elderly restaurant proprietor and gang boss rumored to have been the killer of Mad Dog Coll. Shakes gets part-time summer work from the King, paying bribe money to crooked cops.
These early scenes evoke carefree summer days in which the four friends fool around, play stupid pranks and generally enjoy life. But it all comes to an end one day in the summer of ’67, when a thoughtless incident involving a quick-tempered Greek hot-dog vendor results in a near-fatal accident. The boys are arrested and sentenced to nine to 18 months at the Wilkinson Home for Boys, a Dickensian hellhole where chief guard Nokes (Kevin Bacon) proves to be a sadistic pedophile.
Repeatedly raped and beaten in this nightmare world, the boys are comforted only by Shakes’ obsession with the Alexandre Dumas classic “The Count of Monte Cristo,” with its theme of suffering and eventual revenge.
Almost exactly one hour into the 2hour film, the action abruptly shifts forward from June 1968 to the fall of 1981. Shakes (Patric) is now a journalist and Michael (Brad Pitt) an assistant D.A., while John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup), who seemingly never recovered from the traumas of Wilkinson, are street-smart drug dealers and killers.
Revenge theme kicks in when John and Tommy happen across Nokes, now a run-down security guard, eating in a bar; they deliberately, and quite sadistically, gun him down in front of several witnesses and are soon arrested. At this point, Michael and Shakes conspire to save their friends: Michael applies for, and is given, the task of prosecuting the duo, determined to handle the case so badly his former friends will be found not guilty. Shakes seeks help from his two old mentors, King Benny, who supplies the alcoholic, drug-dependent Danny Snyder (Hoffman) as defense counsel, and Father Bobby, whom he urges to lie under oath to give the accused a false alibi for the time of the killings. Other witnesses are intimidated.
The moral dilemma posed by the film that taking the law into one’s own hands is acceptable if the original crime was heinous enough is not as glibly presented here as it is in the John GrishamJoel Schumacher hit “A Time to Kill.” Nevertheless, the theme can interestingly be contrasted with all those liberal, anti-revenge, anti-lynch-mob pics that Hollywood once produced. As in the Grisham film, the assumption here is that because the crimes against the four youths were truly terrible, the avenging of those crimes outside the legal system is perfectly in order.
If audiences aren’t bothered by this disturbing subtext, there’s a lot to enjoy in this impeccably structured, handsomely produced saga. Levinson drives the narrative along so confidently that, despite the lengthy running time, nothing seems wasted. In fact, a little more time could have been given to establishing the token femme character of Carol (Minnie Driver), who grew up with the quartet (though her presence in the early scenes is marginal at best) and who transferred her love from John to Michael and now is interested in the unresponsive Shakes. A social worker whose apartment is dominated by a huge poster for “Last Tango in Paris,” Carol is an enigmatic character as presented here.
Patric is solid but a tad bland as the adult Shakes, and is somewhat overshadowed by young Joe Perrino, who gives the young Shakes considerable depth. Pitt makes the adult Michael a satisfyingly complex character.
Bacon, as the monstrous Nokes, strongly conveys the evil perversion of a man who callously abuses the youths in his charge. De Niro’s Father Bobby is an engaging enough character, though on the whole a somewhat conventional turn from this actor.
But Hoffman has lots of fun as the ragged, ponytailed attorney who’s sharper than he seems to be. Minor characters are all vividly etched.
Production values are tiptop, starting with the fine widescreen camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the neat production design of Kristi Zea. John Williams contributes another solid score, and there’s the usual clutch of popular songs on the soundtrack to boost CD sales.