I'm like an addict -- every time a classic, childhood favorite of mine is announced for release in high definition, I go through the same cycle. First, a jittery rush of excitement spreads through my gut like a hunger pang. After the chills pass, a slow-burning anticipation settles in my mind for the next three months until I can hardly stand the wait. Then, finally another glorious Tuesday morning arrives, Best Buy cracks its doors, and an indescribably sweet cinematic relief floods my brain.
Most people would scoff at such intense enthusiasm for a flick like 'Sneakers' -- it's certainly not the kind of film that's garnered any significant praise over the years. But back when I was in the tenth grade, my VHS copy of 'Sneakers' may as well have rented a small apartment inside my VCR. It's been years since I last watched the film, so I literally took a deep breath when I slid 'Sneakers' into my HD DVD player -- my mind was racing: would 'Sneakers' hold up after all these years, or would it fizzle and destroy my fond memories of a simpler time?
The story is fairly straight-forward -- an ex-criminal named Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) oversees a ragtag group of experts who test corporate security systems for weaknesses. His team includes a former CIA operative (Sidney Poitier), a blind sound technician (David Strathairn), a college genius (the late River Phoenix), and a paranoid conspiracy buff (Dan Aykroyd). Everything seems to going well for Mrtin until two government agents blackmail him into stealing a dangerous device that could threaten the security of the United States. To make matters worse, Martin isn't the only one interested in acquiring this fringe technology -- his ex-partner (Ben Kingsley) is determined to cause trouble and make Martin suffer for the sins of his past.
While the idea behind 'Sneakers' may not seem as fresh today as it did in 1992, the story still holds up fairly well. Aside from a few antiquated bits of techno-babble (characters get excited about dial-up modems and insanely small amounts of RAM), the themes and plotting are still fun and surprisingly relevant. In an age of increased concern over privacy standards, the underlying threats in 'Sneakers' arguably may resonate more today than they did fifteen years ago. More importantly, the light hearted tone of the film and the witty dialogue plays as well today as it ever did.
The film's a-list ensemble cast is also still a draw. Aykroyd's arguments with Poitier are riotous, Strathairn brings gravitas to what could have just been a bit part, and River Phoenix's performance demonstrates why the young actor's death was so tragic. Likewise, scenes between Kingsley and Redford are searing -- Kingsley's bitterness convincingly boils below the surface and Redford's regret is palpable.
With all of that being said, I have to admit that 'Sneakers' isn't the grand masterpiece of cinema that I once thought it was. Plot developments are incredibly convenient and agencies in the film are implausibly able to track movements, locate individuals, and launch security teams at a moment's notice. Even a flashback scene involving hacking in the '60s showcases an unbelievably fast governmental response. As plot holes like these splinter off into even larger other plot holes, it becomes increasingly difficult to swallow everything the film needs its audience to believe.
Even more disappointing is the inclusion of Martin's on-again off-again love interest, Liz (Mary McDonnell of "Battlestar Galactica" fame). McDonnell does a fine job with what she's given, but her character seems to simply function as an agent of exposition that handily appears to fill in plot details and backstories for the audience. Sure, she has a few quiet character beats, but they're obviously added to give the film a happier ending and bring a dose of femininity to an otherwise all-boys endeavor.
In the end, as good as the performances may be -- and as much as the story still resonates -- I couldn't get through 'Sneakers' this time around without being distracted by its shortfalls. It kills me to admit it, but while I'll always have a special place on my shelf for this flick, I'm not sure newcomers will find as much to love.
Presented in 1080p using the VC-1 codec, this is unfortunately another in a series of sub-par transfers from Universal. As I speculated in my recent review of 'Liar Liar,' it would seem that the studio has rushed some of its more recent HD DVD catalog titles to market, without giving each individual transfer the time and effort needed to ensure superior picture quality.
To be sure, in a direct compare with the previous standard-def edition of 'Sneakers,' this transfer is still an improvement (as well it should be) -- black levels are deeper, sharpness is good, and textures hold up well on clothing and skin.
But while colors are sometimes solid, they tend to feel a bit dull in key scenes -- in fact, the entire picture sometimes seems to be tucked beneath a slightly murky veil of grays and browns. Potentially bold primaries are lost under fifteen years of age, and individual shots rarely hold up to any major scrutiny. Adding to the problem are wavering contrast levels, a few instances of black crush, continuous bursts of white flecks, and background details that soften from shot to shot. All of this combines to rob the image of considerable depth, especially when compared to other more impressive high-def catalogue releases.
In short, while this transfer may please fans searching for a slight upgrade over the standard-def DVD, it's likely to leave most others disappointed.
Like the video, unfortunately the audio presentation in this HD DVD edition of 'Sneakers' is also something of a disappointment, with the Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround mix (1.5 Mbps) only slighly above average.
Prioritization is noticeably weak -- dialogue is occasionally pushed into the background and effects often dominate the action scenes. Quiet character moments stumble as well -- ambient effects are peppered throughout the soundfield, but they're too localized to develop an immersive environment. More often than not, I found myself staring at the source of each noise rather than being surrounded by a convincing illusion of sound.
On the bright side, general sounds are evenly distributed across the front channels, accuracy is acceptable, and channel pans aren't choppy. When the dialogue isn't fighting for supremacy, it's crisp with nice uses of stable treble tones. Likewise, bass booms are earthy and bring a welcome rumble to the soundfield. The track's dynamics tend to be limited, but they do show off a bit during some of the heist scenes.
All in all, this Dolby mix is certainly acceptable -- it's just disappointing that it doesn't live up to its full potential.
Happily for fans of 'Sneakers,' both of the major special features included on the 2004 Collector's Edition DVD have been ported over to this HD DVD edition.
The most densely packed supplement is a commentary track that features director Phil Alden Robinson along with writer Lawrence Kasker, director of photography John Lindley, and co-writer Walter Parkes. As promising a group as this my seem, I had a hard time keeping my attention focused on their conversation -- they seem more concerned with explaining away criticism than talking about the on-set benefits of an ensemble cast. Robinson thankfully discusses Kingsley and Redford's involvement and leadership, but avoids in-depth commentary on more interesting subject matter like line improvisation and earlier versions of the story, which are only alluded to in passing.
Next up is "The Making of Sneakers" (39 minutes), a robust documentary that seems to cover every aspect of the film's creation. My favorite moments featured the cast members on set -- the footage is revealing and the interviews are extremely candid. There are plenty of laughs and smiles to be had in this one and fans of the film should definitely take the time to watch the entire documentary.
Wrapping things up is the film's theatrical trailer, which (like the documentary) is presented in 480i/p only.
As a long-time fan of the film, I was disappointed to discover that 'Sneakers' didn't hold up quite as well as I'd hoped -- the characters were still engaging, but the story was full of plot holes and contrivances I never noticed when I was younger. This HD DVD release is also a disappointment -- the video quality is average, the audio isn't much better, and the supplements have been available on DVD for some time. From every angle, this one's for fans only.