Hell’s Kitchen, the New York tenement neighborhood, is usually thought of as a brutal reality of the Depression-era/wartime years.
But the district was still about the same in the 1960s; it was a place of “hard men and hard lives,” as Barry Levinson’s tough new film “Sleepers” tells it.
If the story is tough, its talent credentials are downright unbeatable. Here is a breakthrough co-star appearance of Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, as representatives of the law and the church. Here is a nightmarishly excellent bad-guy portrayal from Kevin Bacon, making his stalker from “The River Wild” (1994) seem a Cub Scout by comparison. Their performances are done justice by Lorenzo Carcaterra’s provocative revenge story (an embellished autobiography) and screenwriter-director Levinson’s career-long preoccupation with old-time loyalties.
The film occupies a shaky moral ground (go on, TAKE the law into your own hands), but its provocation is potent. The “Sleepers” group of wronged children, who will grow up merciless and determined, provides as potent a vindication of this film’s message as the little girl whose rape triggers a sympathetic vigilantism in the hit “A Time to Kill.”
It’s near the end of the 1960s, and four boyhood pals are accustomed to playing pranks that seem to take the edge off their rough upbringing. But finally, their shenanigans go haywire and trigger a mishap that lands them in reform school.
The reformatory might as well be Sing Sing for all boss guard Sean Nokes (Bacon) cares. Nokes is a sicko of the first order, and the only relief that the boys can find from his ritual beatings and molestations lies in a book by Alexandre Dumas “pere”, “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
The greater the hardship, the sweeter the revenge, Dumas “pere” maintained. Or as in those “Godfather” movies, to which “Sleepers” owes some debt, revenge tastes best served cold.
The grievance is cold indeed by the 1980s, when we catch up with the grown-up chums. Michael, an assistant district attorney, is played by Brad Pitt. Shakes, the Dumas fan, is a news reporter played by Jason Patric. Tommy (Billy Crudup) and John (Ron Eldard) have taken a criminal path.
Then, in a chance encounter with their old tormenter, Tommy and John decide that they must rid the world of Nokes. Captured, the killers are so unrepentant that their pals Shakes and Michael are moved to help them beat the rap.
“Sleepers” is long in the telling (at 150-odd minutes) but brisk in the pacing, with richly drawn portrayals and a compelling musical score by John Williams. Pitt is especially successful at finding the complexities in his role. Patric makes a rightly philosophical and aloof Shakes, working especially well with Minnie Driver in a small role as a potential romantic interest. Bacon seems thoroughly detestable as a man beyond redemption.
De Niro radiates benevolence as a neighborhood priest. Hoffman turns in another irresistible eccentric as a cunning lawyer whom people tend to underestimate.
The youngsters who portray the friends - Jonathan Tucker as Michael, Geoffrey Wigdor as John, Brad Renfro as Michael and Joe Perrino as Shakes - are uniformly memorable in their show of spirited fellowship and suffering.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Sleepers” Locations: East Sprague, Newport and Coeur d’Alene cinemas Credits: Written and directed by Barry Levinson, starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Kevin Bacon, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric Running time: 2:30 Rating: R