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Warm-Hearted Vendetta

Jason Patric & Brad Pitt
Brian Hamill

If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of Hell's Kitchen: Jason Patric (left)
and Brad Pitt seek revenge for childhood wrongs in "Sleepers."

'Sleepers' group hugs quartet of wronged avengers

By Richard von Busack

THE OLD-FASHIONED QUALITIES of Sleepers may sell the film, despite its risky subject matter of child abuse, which has been handled in the same visual style, only better, in Mormon television commercials. Robert De Niro's two-fisted Hell's Kitchen priest could have received his chasuble from the hands of Spencer Tracy himself, and I swear to God, there's a scene in Sleepers in which an admiring gangster says of De Niro's Father Bob, "He would have made a good hit man." But you'll know what year is on the calendar if you make it to the ending for the group hug and the song circle--here's a movie about a vendetta that has the same finale as The First Wives Club.

In the 1960s, in a bad New York neighborhood, four young boys pull a street prank that almost turns fatal. They're sentenced to a correctional home where they're raped and beaten by the guards, especially Nokes, played in a bit of almost Karloffian juiciness by Kevin Bacon. After a year of terrible abuse, the boys go their separate ways: Michael (Brad Pitt, acting quietly for a change) becomes an assistant DA; Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard) become killers; Lorenzo (Jason Patric) works as a newspaper reporter. By sheer coincidence, the two killers run into Nokes in a bar and shoot him on the spot. Michael and Lorenzo then hatch a plot to expose conditions in the school by rigging a deliberately faulty trial of the killers.

Ostensibly a true story, this dubious tale slugs along without a single realistic qualm. Audiences, attuned to the corruption of the legal system, aren't going to feel shocked by the manipulation of justice to avenge the rape of children. Nokes is a scoundrel without outraged wife or orphaned children, and when cornered, he conveniently confesses his evil, so there's never an issue of the wrong man being shot. At more than two hours, a film without any ambiguity to make it interesting is very long indeed.

As for the bigger names in the film, De Niro does just about all that can be done with the role of a priest in shirt sleeves. By far the most entertaining part of Sleepers is Dustin Hoffman in the hoary role of the crumbling lawyer who reconstitutes himself. The gaff works; when Hoffman at last has something damning to say, you're all ears to hear it. Director Barry Levinson drapes sentiment and late-show tropes all over what's supposed to be the worst neighborhood in the world. Fortunately, Levinson toys with imagery and sound techniques to make the movie look cold and modern. There are shots of stainless-steel subway trains speeding through tunnels to break the grim surface of the picture, and some of the dialogue trails away under John Williams' score, to indicate trauma too deep to be spoken of. But after superior television work with Homicide, Levinson appears uncomfortable with material that plays like Jean Genet rewritten by Damon Runyan.

Sleepers (R; 140 min.), directed and written by Barry Levinson, based on the book by Lorenzo Carcaterra, photographed by Michael Ballhaus and starring Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt.

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From the October 24-30, 1996 issue of Metro

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