Review for Sneakers (Film Stories Limited Edition)
Sneakers isn’t the brilliant tech thriller that it once used to be. It’s been dated by modern technology, but it isn’t yet old enough to hold strong as a piece of cinema history. Maybe in another ten years I’ll look on it the way that I used to, and maybe in another ten years, it will get a Blu-ray release worthy of the name.
That is what I wrote when Sneakers was last released on Blu-ray in the UK. It's been eight years though, not ten, but thanks to a new release from Film Stories via the nascent Plumeria label, I’m getting to re-evaluate Sneakers. Has the film aged back towards relevance? Is the Blu-ray a sufficient improvement? I’ve been looking forward to finding out. Film Stories started off as a podcast and website in 2018, and has rapidly expanded with a print magazine and more. This year, their love of film has translated into a distributor label as well, and the first film that they are lavishing their love on is Sneakers, last released here in 2013, and long deleted. That was a barebones Blu-ray to say the least, given Universal’s usual, workmanlike back catalogue treatment. The DVD from 2000 was just as vanilla, so this is the first time I’ll get to see the film with extra features, and it gets a new encode on the disc as well.
Martin Bishop makes an unusual living. He and his associates are hired to test security systems by trying to break them, and as you would expect from such an esoteric line of work, his associates are colourful characters to say the least. Crease is a former CIA agent, Mother is a gadgets wizard with his own line of conspiracy theories, Carl is a former delinquent and genius hacker, while Whistler is a blind computer genius. None of them really have pristine records, but when a couple of NSA agents come calling with a job for them, it’s Martin Bishop’s own past that rears its ugly head.
He wasn’t always Martin Bishop. In a past life he was a college student named Martin Brice, who with his friend Cosmo went on a hacking spree that reallocated a whole lot of money. Cosmo got arrested, Martin did not, and he’s been on the run ever since. Now the government has caught up to him, but they’re actually offering to clear his name, if he and his group can liberate a certain bit of technology from the offices of a genius mathematician. But this bit of kit is something that any government would kill for, and it soon becomes apparent that Martin Bishop can’t trust anybody.
The Sneakers Film Stories release is a Limited Edition, and at the time of writing is only available directly from Plumeria or the Film Stories websites. The first 1000 will get a card keep-case for the Amaray.
Sneakers gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc. The bad news is that it’s still the same source material that has been used for home video since the DVD as far as I can tell. But the good news is that the film has a brand new encode, AVC as opposed to VC1, and a lot of hard work has been put in to make the film look as good as possible. When it comes to colour balance, the little bit of cinewobble, the odd fleck of dirt on the print, it’s still the same. But the first thing I looked for was that moment of moiré on the old Blu-ray around 36 minutes in. It was gone on this version. The image is clearer; there is a fair bit more detail, grain feels a lot more organic and natural, and when it comes to contrast and dark detail, things are handled much better than on the old Blu-ray. The film needs a 4k restoration from the original negative, but until then, this is as good as you’re going to get.
You get DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English, and for the first time on Blu-ray, the original stereo audio in DTS-HD MA 2.0 form with optional English subtitles. There is no menu option for the audio, so you’ll have to use your remote to select the Stereo track, which is what I did for this viewing, wanting to emulate the original theatrical experience. Prologic works a treat with the stereo, making vibrant use of the surround to provide an immersive experience almost on a par with the dedicated surround track on the disc. The all important dialogue is clear for the most part, and that soundtrack from James Horner featuring Branford Marsalis is still one of my favourites.
You get one disc in a BD Amaray style case, and as mentioned, the first 1000 will get a thin card keep-case. The disc boots to a simple static menu, listing the options in what looks like the C64 font. There is no pop-up menu to access during the film.
There are three audio commentaries on this disc.
The commentary from director Phil Alden Robinson & Director of Photography John Lindley comes from the last Blu-ray release in the US (that got extras while the rest of the world didn’t).
New for this release is the audio commentary from Film Stories editor Simon Brew, and Sneakers superfan and film director James Moran.
There is also a new commentary from film critic Priscilla Page.
That US Blu-ray (and original DVD) also got an old 40 minute making of, but we don’t get that here. We get something better, a new 2021 Interview with Co-writer and Director Phil Alden Robinson. This lasts 44:49, and as per the current state of affairs, is a Zoom video, but it’s a detailed retrospective.
The 1992 Cast Interviews last 8:25 and feature contributions from Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier.
Finally there is the Theatrical Trailer.
I loved Sneakers when I first saw it in 1992, and it quickly became one of my favourite films from the nineties. I loved it on VHS, and I loved it just as much on DVD. It was only when I got that Blu-ray in 2013 that it started to feel dated. There was something about its almost analogue technology that seemed quaint in an age where a simple smartphone had encapsulated all its wizardry in one device. I hoped at the time that it would emulate Wargames, also written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F Parkes and become a timeless classic, where nostalgia for its tech would outweigh its quaintness. That hasn’t really happened, but I’ve fallen back in love with Sneakers regardless.
The tech in Sneakers doesn’t really matter anymore. The ultimate hacker’s weapon is really just a motivator to the national scramble to possess it, and it all seems rather tame in a world plagued with ransomware, and with state sponsored cybercriminals hacking into rival national infrastructures. The never ending arms race of security vulnerabilities and patches puts this film in the shade, made in an era when all we had to worry about were boot sector viruses on our floppy discs.
But it’s no longer a distraction from the most important aspect of the film; the characters. Sneakers’ ensemble cast really does fill the screen, and you can hear in the director interview how the film’s lengthy development allowed the writers to really know the characters before they started filming. I adore the byplay between Bishop and Cosmo, who appear as two sides of the same coin. They’re two men shaped by idealism. Bishop had to reconcile his idealism with the real world, but still has something of an anti-authoritarian twinkle in his eye, while Cosmo held onto his idealism and wound up corrupted by it. It’s a really nice bit of character development that still holds up in the film.
Sneakers may still feel a little dated, but in some respects it’s a lot more relevant than ever before, certainly more than it was eight years ago. What it has to say about identity, about how we’re defined by information makes a lot more sense now. Now, more than ever before, the primary way we interact with the world is electronically. Machines make decisions about our lives based on algorithms, and more and more the human element is removed. It makes us all the more vulnerable when these systems fail, or are abused. In this regard, Sneakers shows a remarkable degree of prescience. Sneakers also holds up well as it’s one of the rare Hollywood hacker movies that doesn’t over-egg its tech pudding, with magic computers that do whatever the plot requires of them. Other than a few bits of graphical creative licence, the hacks and sneaks in this film are all pretty plausible for 1992.
I still love Sneakers, and I had just as much fun with the film last night, as I did when I first saw it in the cinema, nearly 30 years ago. Thanks to Film Stories and Plumeria, it gets as good a release as possible without a full 4k restoration. It’s a wonderful start from a new label, and I look forward to what they can release next.