Note: The impetus for this review came as a result of listening to a podcast discussing the movie (Shat the Movies). In it they referenced a little anecdote that I found interesting. It seems that during the production a couple of men claiming to represent Office of Naval Intelligence approached the director that in the interest of national security he could not reference a hand-held device that could decode codes. It turned out that it was not really representatives of the government but just part of a prank. It has been suggested that Dan Aykroyd was behind the prank.
It's 1992. Late September. Hollywood unleashes a film that has star-studded cast. It has 3 Academy Award winners and 4 others who have been to the ceremonies as nominees for the prestigious award. And one more who would also garner a nomination a few years later. So this prestigious cast all came together for one film. And although it was a pretty good success at the box office ($105 million on a $23 million budget), I am willing to bet that there are quite a few people out there that have never even heard of it.
So the cast includes:
Robert Redford, winner of Best Director for Ordinary People and nominated for Best Actor for The Sting. (although ignored for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which I still consider a crime... and that's just the biggest snub,. See the link above.)
Ben Kingsley, winner of the Best Actor for Gandhi. He was also nominated for Sexy Beast, Bugsy and House of Sand and Fog. (But not for Schindler's List. Pity.)
Sidney Poitier, winner of the Best Actor award for Lillies of the Field, and nominated for one for The Defiant Ones. (More snubs? He was ignored for In the Heat of the Night, though his co-star, Rod Steiger was the winner of the Best Actor).
Dan Aykroyd, who was nominated for a Best Actor Driving Miss Daisy.
River Phoenix, who was nominated for Running on Empty.
Mary McDonnell, who was nominated for Dances with Wolves.
And briefly in this film, James Earl Jones, who had been nominated for The Great White Hope. (And probably should have gotten at least some recognition as the voice of Darth Vader if only he had received credit for it. But since it was only his voice, and David Prowse pulled of the physical presence, I guess I'll have to give that one a pass.
Also appearing was David Strathairn, who would later get a nomination for Good Night and Good Luck.
None of these guys and girls actually pulled off anything like Academy Award performances in the film. (Although I will point out that until I saw him in another movie I was convinced that Strathairn was actually blind...) But having such a prestigious cast should have made this movie more memorable. And you may be one who remembers it fondly... good for you.
I got to see the movie when it first hit the theaters. I liked it enough to watch it more than once. The movie is a bit dated by now as technology has surpassed that of what is portrayed in the film, although it was cutting edge at the tim. It feels like a relic these days, but the acting makes it as watchable as it was in 1992.
After an opening credits sequence which features anagram variations of the people involved in the movie:
A TURNIP CURES ELVIS
(Universal Picures) Presents
A FEW ASTRAL CLERKS REPEL NEWARK
A (Lawrence Lasker Walter F. Parkes) Production
BLOND RHINO SPANIEL
A (Phil Alden Robinson) Film
FORT RED BORDER
(This sequence acts as sort of a foreshadowing of a later development in the film, as we will see.)
Opening sequence: Two college friends Marty and Cosmo are messing around with early computer hacking, transferring money from such disparate agencies such as having the Republican Party donate a big chunk of money to the Black panthers and having then President Richard Nixon donate his entire money sources to NORML (the organization fighting to legalize marijuana). When Cosmo tricks Marty into being the one to go out and fetch pizza, Cosmo is left alone in the dorm, thus being the only one of the two to be arrested when police subsequently raid the place. A side note: the younger Cosmo is a fair likeness a possibly young Kingsley, but the young Marty with his mustache is so similar to Redford in his younger days it's pretty impressive.
The actual film story begins as Martin Bishop (Robert Redford) and his crew prepare to infiltrate a bank. After shutting down the security systems and distracting the security guard, they use their tech to transfer a large sum of money to a bank account that Bishop had previously opened. Bishop's crew consists of Donald Crease (Sidney Poitier), a former C.I.A. agent, "Mother" (Dan Aykroyd), an electronics wiz (and for comedy relief, a conspiracy theorist of the highest order), Carl (River Phoenix), a teenage hacker extraordinaire, and "Whistler" (David Strathairn) a blind man who can do wonders with telephone technology.
But it's all in the name of the job that Bishop and his crew perform ; that of finding flaws in the security systems of companies that hire them. (And they must charge out the wazoo for this because I really don't see how it could be a profitable business, even in the 90's, Seems too specialized to me.)
After taking care of business, Bishop is followed by two men Buddy (Eddie Jones) and Dick (Timothy Busfield). The men claim to be from the National Security Agency and want to hire Bishop to steal a "black box" being developed by Professor Gunter Janek (Donal Logue). Under the guise of a corporation called "Setec Astronomy", Janek is supposed to have created something for the Russian government that the NSA is highly interested in.
Yeah, in 1992. I know what you're thinking, and Bishop addresses it. The Russians? "Give me a break. We won. They lost. It's been in a couple of papers."
But as the agents say "We still spy on them and they still spy on us." So, to the effect of stealing the black box, the company sets up a surveillance of Janek's office. And find out the box is hidden in plain sight on his desk. Bishop breaks in and gets away with the box, Back at their headquarters they find out the "macguffin" is a code breaker that can break into the most secure computer systems in the world. And through a game of using Scrabble tiles, they figure out that SETEC ASTRONOMY anagrams to "Too many secrets". (See I told you that anagram thing in the credits would turn out to be important).
Realizing that any agency in the world would kill to get their hands on the device, Crease insists on a lock down until the box can be handed off to the NSA. The next day Bishop delivers the box to the NSA agents. But Bishop finds out that Dr. Janek was killed, and becomes suspicious. He leaves the "agents" without even collecting the money and the "agents" try to kill him.
Back at headquarters there is a group of friends who are in turmoil. Who was behind it all? Certainly not the NSA, because the real NSA calls and wants their black box. Bishop ends up going to an old acquaintance, Grigor (George Hearn) a former KGB agent. But Grigor says the Russians, although they would love to get their hands on the thing, are not involved.
So who is? Well, the big surprise is, after Grigor is killed and Bishop is taken hostage, he finds himself face-to-face with his old friend Cosmo (Ben Kingsley). It is a surprise because Bishop was under the impression that Cosmo had died in prison. It turns out that while Cosmo was in prison he made himself invaluable to certain members of the Mafia and afterwards became a big shot. So it's not the Russians but the criminal underworld who are behind the scenes of the crime.
Bishop, whose real name was Martin Brice, soon becomes a fugitive because now that the Mafia, or more specifically Cosmo, has the black box, the file on Martin Brice can be amended to show an alias, It was Bishop's gun that was used to kill Grigor, so Bishop a.ka. Brice will show up on the FBI's fingerprints file.. (BTW, if you're asking yourself how Martin Brice's fingerprints got on file in the first place since he avoided the arrest with Cosmo, you found one of the flaws in the story.)
So Cosmo lets Bishop go. After all, his revenge is in place with the change of the FBI files making Bishop the target of the law enforcement. So Bishop and his crew are under two threats now. (The other is the NSA, who were the real backers of Janek's box, because they want their box back.
The final reel of the film involves some of the most intense uses of the abilities of the team, which now includes Liz (Mary McDonnell) who had come on board initially to help Martin decipher Janek's techno speak. Liz gets to be the computer date for a nebbish, Werner Brandeis (Stephen Tobolowsky), who just happens to have the office next door to Cosmo's, so they can access the place where the box is stashed.
Eventually, of course, Martin retrieves the box and hands it off to the agent from the NSA who shows up to retrieve it (played by James Earl Jones). And the trade off that the crew demands is pretty entertaining in itself.
One of the highlights in this film, for me anyway, is the rather hilarious "conspiracy theories" that Mother keeps spouting. Most of the rest of the crew just accept them as de rigueur, but Kreese's reactions are a hoot.
Despite the fact that much of this film's technology seems a little outdated by today's standards, it is not all that surprising that it still holds up as a thriller. The basic premise of espionage and double cross will still entertain. I just re-watched it today and was still excited by it even though I knew almost every twist and turn from the film by heart.
Well folks, time to fire up this old wreck of a Plymouth and head home. And if there are any suspicious cars waiting outside, I'm heading to Brazil. Drive safely, folks.
I, GQ GUY