The Ensemble Action-Comedy Sneakers Might Be Sidney Poitier's Most Underrated Film

The late Sidney Poitier leaves behind an impressive body of work on the big screen, to say nothing of his achievements as a theater actor, social activist, and as the Bahamas' ambassador to Japan. Over the course of 50-plus years, Poitier portrayed characters that defied racist stereotypes, offering positive depictions of Black men onscreen at a time when they were almost non-existent in mainstream cinema. But he didn't just play good role models or star in trail-blazing movies; he also directed lighter, comical romps like the 1980 crime-comedy "Stir Crazy" and lent his talents to "Sneakers," an ensemble heist flick that not only holds up wonderfully, it's just as relevant and entertaining now as it was upon its initial release in 1992.

Directed by Phil Alden Robinson ("Field of Dreams") from a script he co-wrote with Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes ("WarGames"), "Sneakers" centers on a ragtag team of tech experts who make a living by testing security systems and determining whether or not they are up to scratch. Their ranks include Donald Crease (Poitier), a no-nonsense family man who gets very quiet when you ask why he no longer works for the CIA; Darren "Mother" Roskow (Dan Aykroyd), an electronics technician who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't believe; Irwin "Whistler" Emery (David Strathairn), a blind telecommunications expert who's easily the most observant member of the pack; Carl Arbogast (River Phoenix), a hacker prodigy and a hopeless romantic at heart; and Martin Bishop (Robert Redford), the group's unflappable leader and a man sitting on some big secrets. However, when Martin's past catches up to him, it falls to him and his crew to clear his name by recovering a mysterious black box — one that looks like an ordinary telephone answering machine (I swear they existed, kids!) but is really a device capable of breaking into just about every computer system on the planet.

Too Many Secrets

Much like their characters, the main "Sneakers" cast is a well-oiled machine where every actor not only works in harmony with those around them but are also matched perfectly to their respective roles. Donald Crease, for example, fits Poitier like a glove; he's dignified and rarely loses his composure, even when his co-workers test his patience by, say, rambling on about how the Apollo moon landings were faked. (This is where I make the easy joke that Aykroyd as Mother is basically playing himself.) Yet, when Donald realizes just how much danger Martin's secret history has gotten them into, or, in a terrific moment in the third act, reveals "why" the CIA fired him, Poitier gets to channel the same badass energy he brought to his most iconic movie line: "They call me Mister Tibbs!" He may not be its leading man, but "Sneakers" perfectly illustrates what made Poitier such an engaging screen presence.

Beyond that, "Sneakers" is just an excellent ride fueled by fun banter and tight storytelling. It carefully straddles the line between comedy and drama, which in turn prevents its plot from teetering so far into the realm of implausibility that it loses all sense of stakes (even with a MacGuffin that's inherently kind of silly). The score, by James Horner, is also one of my personal favorites of his: It's playful yet weighty when it needs to be and taps into the film's underlying sense of melancholy. Speaking of which, "Sneakers" speaks to a lot of concerns that are as timely in 2022 as they were in the early '90s: The right to privacy, inequality, and how those in power always seek to control the flow of information. One particular cast member, who I've deliberately avoided mentioning, makes a meal out of their monologues about these issues, and it's a pleasure to watch them at work.

There's a whole lot more to enjoy about "Sneakers" — heck, I'm only now bringing up that Mary McDonnell ("Dances with Wolves," "Battlestar Galactica") and Stephen Tobolowsky ("Groundhog Day") are also part of the film's stellar ensemble. So if you're looking to revisit some of Poitier's best work or have never seen this one before, do yourself a favor and rent it from one of the multiple platforms where it's available this weekend.