Based on a true story or not, Barry Levinson's adaptation of Lorenzo
Carcaterra's best-selling novel is a perfectly competent Hollywood revenge
fantasy. The problem is, the film is not quite as great as it thinks it is.
This story of "friendship that runs deeper than blood" opens in
Hell's Kitchen in the late 1960s, where we meet a group of four young boys,
Michael (Brad Renfro), Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), John (Geoffrey Wigdor), and
the author himself, Lorenzo, a.k.a. Shakes (Joseph Perrino). These
troublemaking but well-meaning kids get more than they bargained for when a
prank goes awry and they land in a hellish boys' reform school, where they
are treated to violent physical and sexual abuse by four of the guards, led
by one nasty fellow by the name of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon).
After the kids finish their sentence, the film flashes forward to
1981, where the film's problems begin. The four guys have now just about
gone their separate ways and lost touch with each other--is this what you
call a "friendship that runs deeper than blood"? John (former ER recurrent
Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup) are now bigtime hoodlums, and, in a
fortuitous coincidence, they run into and fatally shoot Nokes in a
restaurant. Enter Michael (Brad Pitt), who is now a New York assistant DA,
who agrees to prosecute the case against John and Tommy--and, unbeknownst to
this two childhood friends, plans to intentionally throw the case to let the
two off and have their revenge. Helping in the elaborate revenge scheme is,
yes, Shakes (Jason Patric), now a clerk for the New York Times, who also
engineers the downfall of their other three tormentors at the school.
I suppose it goes without saying that all works out in the end--but,
of course, not without an easily overcome glitch or two. And those seeking
a glossy revenge tale in which the baddies get their just desserts won't be
disappointed with Sleepers; well-acted and smoothly directed, it gets the
job done... but only on those terms. Watching the film I could not help but
feel other grandiose intentions at work, ambitions that weren't quite met.
The impressive cast (which also includes Robert De Niro as the kids' priest
and a hilarious Dustin Hoffman as John and Tommy's alcoholic, drug-addicted
defense attorney), John Williams's shockingly understated and somber score,
and Patric's flat, pretentious voiceover narration ("Hell's Kitchen is a
place of innocence ruled by corruption") suggests a big Oscar-worthy tale.
But it isn't, at least not in this critic's opinion. The "true" story
relies too heavily on contrived coincidences and, worst of all, shortchanges
major characters. Despite their role in killing Nokes, John and Tommy are
virtually invisible in the second half; never do we get a glimpse of insight
as to what they are feeling during the trial, seeing their friend "trying"
to put them away. It is quite obvious why director-scripter Levinson
focused on matinee idols Pitt and Patric, but their side of the story is
perhaps the least interesting. Also, De Niro's character is called on to
make a major ethical and religious choice, and we never really get a sense
as to why and how he arrives at his ultimate decision; it just happens.
As mentioned before, the cast, to varying degrees, does a good job.
Top honors go to De Niro, Hoffman, Perrino, and Minnie Driver as the four's
pal. Bacon exudes appropriate menace in the one-note role of Nokes. Patric
and Pitt are adequate, but they, Patric especially, suffer from accent
inconsistencies. Perrino has a very thick New York accent, and Patric
barely makes an effort to use one; while time has passed, I doubt that a boy
with that thick of an accent could shake it off so completely no matter
where he lived or whatever speech coach he may have had. The only star
whose accent is in line with his or her younger counterpart is Driver, whose
very convincing accent comes as somewhat of a surprise, considering her
natural British lilt. Eldard and Crudup don't make enough of an impression
because they are called on to do so little. Crudup has been hailed along
with the likes of That Thing You Do!'s Johnathon Schaech as a Hollywood "it"
boy, a superstar of tomorrow; based on his limited work here, it is hard to
see how that buzz originated.
It may appear as if I didn't enjoy Sleepers, but I did; I got caught
up in the story and the characters. But this good film had the potential to
be a great film, a true Oscar contender that, alas, didn't quite make it to