DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

SLEEPERS (director/writer: Barry Levinson; screenwriter: from the non-fiction book by Lorenzo Carcaterra; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Stu Linder; music:  John Williams; cast: Brad Pitt (Michael), Jason Patrick (Lorenzo/Shakes), Joe Perrino (Shakes as a kid), Brad Pitt (Michael), Brad Renfro (Michael as a kid), Ron Eldard (John), Geoff Wigdor (John as a kid), Billy Crudup (Tommy), Jonathan Tucker (Tommy as a kid), Kevin Bacon (Sean Nokes),  Dustin Hoffman (Danny Syder), Minnie Driver (Carol), Robert DeNiro (Father Bobby), Vittorio Gassman (King Benny), Wendell Pierce (Black Mobster), Terry Kinney (Ferguson, Guard), Bruno Kirby (Shakes' Father), Aida Turturro (Crime Witness), Frank Medrano (Fat Mancho), George Georgiadis (Hot Dog Vendor); Runtime: 127; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Peter Giuliano; Warner Bros.; 1996)

"It plays out as a stylish and lurid amoral vigilante thriller, one that never earns the viewer's confidence that this is the real thing."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

An atmospheric urban jungle film about lasting friendship and of getting away with the murder of a sadistic prison guard. The revenge film, appealing to a wide audience, tells us the retribution was justified, as it asks us to accept a questionable belief that no religion or society can ethically justify. It's based on the controversial semi-autobiographical book by Lorenzo Carcaterra that was artfully adapted to the screen by the talented writer-director Barry Levinson ("Diner"/"Rain Man"/"Tin Men"). Supposedly it's based on a true story, but seems more like pulp fiction. It plays out as a stylish and lurid amoral vigilante thriller, one that never earns the viewer's confidence that this is the real thing. The big-time cast includes Dustin Hoffman, in a small but meaningful role, as an alcoholic has-been lawyer, and Robert DeNiro, as a kind fatherly priest. Both stars give fine performances, greatly uplifting the film.

Jason Patrick was one of the four abused imprisoned teens the story is about, who is now a hot-shot NYC reporter narrating the film and serves as the only voice of truth.

During the summer of 1966, four adolescents, about 14, are brought up in an environment influenced by both gangsters and priests in NYC's Hell's Kitchen slum. The boys -- Lorenzo, nicknamed Shakes (Joe Perrino), Michael (Brad Renfro), John (Geoff Wigdor) and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) -- are mentored by the caring neighborhood priest, Father Bobby (Robert DeNiro). The boys are also influenced by the local mob boss and restaurant owner King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), who employs them over the summer to pay out bribe money to crooked cops. In 1967, after one of their pranks turned ugly when played on a volatile old Greek-street vendor of hot dogs (George Georgiadis), the teens are arrested and at their trial receive at least 9 months jail time in an upstate NY reform school (Wilkinson Home for Boys). While in prison, they are relentlessly beaten and raped. The worst culprit of the four abusive guards is the violent pedophile chief guard Nokes (Kevin Bacon).

The second part of the film follows the four as adults, in the fall of 1981, almost fifteen years after their reform school release. Shakes (Jason Patric) is a journalist and Michael (Brad Pitt) an assistant D.A.. But the other two boys, John (Ron Eldard) and Tommy (Billy Crudup), become gangsters.

When by chance John and Tommy run into Nokes in a bar, they impulsively shoot him in front of witnesses inside the bar and are arrested. Michael and Shakes come to the rescue of their old friends. Michael talks his way into prosecuting their case and will do his best to lose, while Shakes hires the drug-addict Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman) as defense counsel and gets Father Bobby to lie under oath by supplying the accused with a false alibi for the time of the killings. Meanwhile all the witnesses are too scared to testify. The film turns on the moral dilemma of believing the revenge killing was justified.

Problems for the veracity of the story arose when no one, including investigative reporters looking into the story, could find evidence such incidents ever happened. I thought it was more likely bogus than true, but the unimaginable film was entertaining and well-crafted.

REVIEWED ON 4/24/2015       GRADE: B-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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