NEW YORK — `SNEAKERS" has a whimsical title - it's not about footwear but people who sneak - and an up-to-the-minute story full of computers and megabytes.
Despite all its high-tech gadgets, though, it's a deliciously old-fashioned movie at heart, with glamorous stars romping through a classic example of the familiar caper-comedy genre. Even the picture's occasional violence and vulgarity stay within PG-13 boundaries. And for a bonus, there's a sassy political message tagged onto the tale, putting "Sneakers" in a league with the new "Bob Roberts" as one of the rare Hollywood films with something on its mind besides pure dithering and diversion.
The hero is Bishop, a middle-aged technologist whose profession is to rob banks and corporations - then return the money, and advise his willing victims on how to avoid real robberies in the future. Watching him at work for his big-money clients, you'd never guess he was once a 1960s radical who barely escaped jail for serving revolutionary goals.
His best friend, Cosmo, wasn't so lucky in the '60s. When both were caught red-handed in an ambitious computer crime, Cosmo went to prison and died while Bishop went to Canada and hid. Bishop then returned to the US with a new identity. But now the government has found him out, and threatens to lock him up if he doesn't help with an undercover operation involving secret codes, a mysterious computer chip, and all sorts of international intrigue.
Will our hero cooperate with the Feds, his longtime enemies? What's the secret of the enigmatic agent they're chasing, and the sinister "black box" they find in his possession? Are these really Feds at all, or villains with a government disguise? And what about Cosmo, who may not have died in prison as Bishop believes?
The suspense grows. And so, to the movie's credit, do the laughs. Bishop and his colleagues are a brilliant bunch of guys, but they're also quite silly at times. And they're nothing if not colorful, since each has a distinguishing characteristic that sets him apart from the others. Crease is the only African-American of the group; Cal is so young he's practically a kid; Whistler is blind and works mainly by ear; Mother can't stop dreaming up conspiracy theories to explain practically everything.
Along with suspense and humor, "Sneakers" has a tantalizing awareness of how images, electronic circuitry, and endlessly proliferating information are waging a battle with facts, experience, and reality itself in the contemporary world. One character suggests that there's no such thing as reality anymore - tilting the movie toward French philosopher Jean Baudrillard's theory that today is a "hyperreal" time when the image "bears no relation to any reality whatever" and has become "its own pure simulacru m," to quote his influential book "Simulations."
"Sneakers" doesn't pursue such notions deeply, but they lend substance to what's otherwise an exercise in pure entertainment. Much of the movie's spark comes from its screenplay - credited to Phil Alden Robinson, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes - and from the snappy, energetic way Mr. Robinson has directed it. His last picture was "Field of Dreams," which I found boring and bathetic despite its box-office success. It's a pleasure to report that he has made terrific progress as a filmmaker since the n.
And, as they used to say in Hollywood, whatta cast! Robert Redford plays Bishop with great ease and charm; he seems delighted to be involved with a movie that's not Important and Imposing for a change. Sidney Poitier reminds us what a high-class movie star he is when given a high-class opportunity. James Earl Jones and Ben Kingsley do the same, although the latter's American accent is alarmingly wobbly at times. Mary McDonnell gets maximum mileage as Bishop's long-suffering romantic interest.
"Sneakers" would be better if Ms. McDonnell weren't the only woman with a significant part - there's no reason why the story should be so completely dominated by men - and if the action didn't go on quite so long, with quite so many twists and turns. Still, this is one of the year's most enjoyable pictures, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't become a major hit. Rarely has the hyperreal been so much fun.