Sleepers - * * * 1/2*

Sleepers is a powerfully acted revenge flick. It starts out in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of west side Manhattan in the mid-1960s. Four boys, Michael (Brad Renfro), Shakes (Joe Perrino), John (Geoff Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), form a strong and lasting bond of friendship that stabilizes them in the midst of violent families in a violent neighborhood. Robert De Niro portrays Father Bobby, a local priest who is a friend and confidant to the foursome. The early part of Sleepers plays as a youth-bonding picture, but then things get turned upside down. A tragic accident turns a petty crime into tragedy, and sends the four boys upstate to juvenile hall. At the Wilkinson Home for Boys, the friends discover terror in the persona of Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon), and three other guards who beat, torture and mollest the foursome, scarring them for a lifetime. Flash forward to 1981. John and Tommy (Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup) are now murderous thugs. Shakes (Jason Patric) has managed to get a job as a newspaper clerk, and Michael (Brad Pitt) has become an assistant DA. A chance encounter with Nokes sets the balls rolling in an elaborate scheme for revenge which Michael has concocted. Barry Levinson does a solid directing job, especially in the introductory scenes of the boys and their neighborhood. The cinematography is impressive, varying with the mood of the film. The performances throughout are first rate, but Robert DeNiro stands out in his atypical role, as does Dustin Hoffman in a cameo bit as an alcoholic lawyer. The main problem I had with Sleepers centers on the characters of John and Tommy. As kids, they’re alright, but as adults, they’re hardly sympathetic, and not much better than the evil guards when you think about it. Yet, the audience is supposed to sympathize with them…and it never quite happens. Fortunately, there are Jason Patric and Brad Pitt to sympathize with as well, so the movie’s central point is not lost. Still, even if it were, the film is worth seeing for the acting alone. Add in the starpower, Levinson’s direction and some good visuals, and you’ve got one heck of a movie.

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