In 1990s Hollywood, in a desperate attempt to secure as much audience as possible, evaded controversies like plague. But sometimes controversies could be good for business. At least that was the case with Lorenzo Carcaterra's novel, later adapted into Sleepers, 1996 drama directed by Barry Levinson.
Lorenzo Carcaterra claimed that his novel was based on true events, some being experienced by himself. When media investigated and subsequently found no evidence to back Carcaterra's claims, the author went silent and today it is widely believed that the claim was nothing more than clever publicity stunt. True or not, the story of Sleepers begins with four boys growing up in Hell's Kitchen. That New York neighbourhood is tough, but ruled by two powerful forces – Catholic Church, embodied by Father Bobby (played by Robert de Niro) and Mafia, led by King Benny (played by Vittorio Gassman) – that provide stability and make sure that people there, unlike outside world, take care of their own. Following innocent prank gone terribly wrong, four boys leave Hell's Kitchen in order to spend a year in a reform school. There they are subjected to systematic physical and sexual abuse by guards led by sadistic Sean Nokes (played by Kevin Bacon) and leave the place traumatised for life. Fifteen years later two of the boys - who grew up to be career criminals - meet Nokes in the restaurant and use the opportunity to exact quick and bloody revenge. Their murder trial gets attention of remaining two friends - one is Michael Sullivan (played by Brad Pitt), district attorney who manages to get himself into prosecuting the case; another is Lorenzo Carcaterra (played by Jason Patric) who now works as newspaper reporter. Two of them devise a complicated plan to get their friends off the hook and punish the rest of their torturers; the plan involves Father Bobby, King Benny, alcoholic lawyer Danny Snyder (played by Dustin Hoffman) and many people from Hell's Kitchen.
Apart from trying to sell fiction as real life, Carcaterra and Levinson (who wrote screenplay) were accused of expressing some views that are out of tune with foundations of modern society. The least problematic is the glorification of organised crime as violent but generally benevolent social force and defender of traditional community values. Sympathies towards vigilantism – concept generally banished from Hollywood films these days - might even seem refreshing in the climate of "political correctness". But the same social code that provides victims with the means to get justice done comes at the expense of gender equality (women are bullied into never divorcing their husbands) and political freedoms (people are warned of the serious consequences if they say a single kind word about Republicans).
However, even the most questionable views should not be such a big problem if they are expressed in interesting manner. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Sleepers. It has really impressive and diverse cast and the story itself - fictional or not - can attract viewer's attention. But Levinson wastes all that opportunity with some unfortunate directing choices. First of them is boring narration by Lorenzo's character which is, just like John Williams' musical score, supposed to give epic scope to otherwise mundane events and situations displayed in the film. Another problem for this film comes from Levinson's usual lack of pacing skill; Sleepers, with its two and half hours of running time, is simply overlong. The second part of the film, that deals with convoluted conspiracy, is also very boring; with such overwhelming forces on the side of our protagonists there is hardly any suspense left in the film. The general impression is saved by acting, especially from young actors depicting protagonists in early scenes, but Dustin Hoffman and Vittorio Gassman leave something to be desired. Some characters, including obligatory female played by Minnie Driver, could have been left on the cutting room floor. Despite that, Sleepers is watchable film, but not for everyone - some viewers might greet the end credits by engaging in activity suggested by film's title.
RATING: 4/10 (+)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.films.reviews on September 25th 2003)
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