"This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood. This is my story and that of the only three friends in my life that truly mattered. Two of them were killers who never made it past the age of thirty. The other is a nonpracticing attorney living with the pain of his past.... I'm the only one who could speak for them, and the children we were." --Lorenzo "Shakes" Carcaterra, "Sleepers"
If Barry Levinson's 1995 crime drama "Sleepers" reminds you of Clint Eastwood's 2003 crime drama "Mystic River," don't be surprised. They both explore similar themes of childhood abuses and adult retribution. Although one can accuse both films of also being highly melodramatic and exaggerated to the point of improbability, I'd say if you enjoyed one, you're likely to enjoy the other.
Not that "Sleepers" should have had any chance of failing, given its filmmakers and cast. (Indeed, it didn't fail, doing all right for itself at the box office considering it wasn't a summer blockbuster.) The movie's co-producer, screenwriter (from a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra), and director, Barry Levinson, has a string of big titles on his resume, like "Diner," "The Natural," "Young Sherlock Holmes," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Tin Men," "Rain Man," "Bugsy," and "Wag the Dog." John Williams wrote the movie's music. And the film's stars include Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Vittorio Gassman, Brad Renfro, Jason Patric, and Brad Pitt. That first actor on the list is particularly interesting because not only does Bacon co-star in "Sleepers," he also co-starred in "Mystic River," and "Sean" was the first name of both of his screen characters. Remarkable.
Anyway, as the opening monologue indicates, author Lorenzo Carcaterra insists that the characters and events of the story are autobiographical, even though he has not been able to prove it. No matter. It's a movie; accept it as a piece of entertainment, much as Eastwood's "Mystic River" is a dramatic entertainment. Otherwise, you might find the coincidences and hyperbole coloring your judgment of the story as a whole.
The movie, very long at about two and a half hours, begins in 1966 in the area of New York City known as Hell's Kitchen, a formerly (and maybe still) tough neighborhood inhabited at the time largely by Irish, Italians, Puerto Ricans, and Eastern European laborers. (Hell's Kitchen was also the setting for "West Side Story," among other films and books, just to give you an idea of its identity.) Using a good deal of narrative voice-over from the main character (and author of the book), Lorenzo "Shakes" Caracaterra (Jason Patric), we learn that Hell's Kitchen "was a place of innocence ruled by corruption."
Next, we meet the four principal players, Shakes and his three best buddies, all of them in their early teens: Michael Sullivan (Brad Pitt as the older character, Brad Renfro as his younger self), Tommy Marcano (Billy Crudup and Jonathan Tucker), and John Reilly (Ron Eldard and Geoffrey Wigdor).
A stupid mistake, a prank really, puts the boys in a juvenile facility for six-to-eighteen months, where four guards lead by Sean Nokes (Kevin Bacon) torture, beat, and rape them repeatedly. This opening segment of the movie lasts for the better part of an hour just to bring us to the main story, a fast-forward to 1982, the boys now in their mid-to-late twenties. It appears as though screenwriter-director Levinson decided to film every word of the book. Be that as it may, it is in 1982 that the plot finally kicks into high gear with an unlikely succession of events that trigger an even more unlikely revenge against the backdrop of an extended courtroom sequence.
Along the way, we meet Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), a kindly neighborhood priest, a former tough guy himself who grew up in Hell's Kitchen, who tries to help the area's kids out of trouble; Shakes's father (Bruno Kirby), an abusive loser; King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), the old-school head mobster in the neighborhood, whose word is law; and Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), an alcoholic, down-and-out lawyer.
Any revenge picture in order to be successful must begin with a really horrendous offense in order for the vengeance to work, and certainly the sexual and physical abuse of children fits the bill. However, the film goes on to present us with some rather dubious values in terms of that revenge. When is the reprisal worse than the crime? "Sleepers" glorifies the retribution and glosses over its severity. It's rather like the argument about capital punishment being no better than the crime it's supposedly punishing. Although one can look at these things two ways, the film presents only the one side.
Leaving that viewpoint aside, "Sleepers" is tense and gripping for most of its running time, the acting is first-rate, the location shooting adds a gritty authenticity, and John Williams's music is at least unobtrusive. However, if the author didn't tell us the story was entirely true, it would be more than a little hard to swallow; or maybe it makes it even harder to swallow; I don't know. What's more, there are several turns during the trial proceedings that seem highly suspect.
So, no, "Sleepers" does not succeed on every level, and it's more than a bit disconcerting to see how the narrative makes serious wrongdoers sympathetic. Still, for a lot of viewers the movie may contain enough positive virtues to overcome its shortcomings. Therefore, one must regard it as, at best, a qualified success.
It's a lengthy film, as I've said, so Warners use a dual-layer BD50 to accommodate it and a MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce it in its native aspect ratio, 2.40:1. The image quality is actually fairly soft, yet it is also very clean and displays excellent, realistically natural colors, especially skin tones. With good black levels to set off the hues, the results are more than satisfactory.
There isn't much to the soundtrack beyond dialogue and a few minor environmental noises, so the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does not have to work very hard. There is a good front-channel stereo separation, but very little surround. However, when the soundtrack calls for it, it exhibits a strong dynamic impact, and one has to respect the lossless audio.
It appears WB couldn't find or didn't want to include much in the way of bonus items for the movie, despite their having plenty of room on a dual-layer disc to do so. All we really get are fourteen unnumbered scene selections; a pan-and-scan theatrical trailer in standard definition; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Disclaimers at the end of the film throw doubt on the veracity of the events. I'm not sure if that helps one accept the film better or question it more. "Sleepers" works well in technical matters, moves along at a quick-enough pace for a long movie, and leaves one with an undoubted appreciation for its several consequential moments. Now, if it didn't leave such a bitter taste in the mouth.