Putting Your Guard Down

Two dangerous men walk into a bar. They spot a familiar face; the guy is all alone eating his dinner in peace. The two thugs approach the dining gentleman. The first time: they fire questions. The second time: they fire bullets.

That would be one way to start the story. Another way is to go back much earlier. The gunmen were only young lads, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. One summer day, the boys trouble a hotdog vendor, stealing his cart. This petty act of crime goes wrong and leads them to a trouble of their own.

“Sleepers” is a moving film about four boys and their lost of innocence. They are sent to Wilkinson School for Boys to serve their time. Four particular guards are vile and sadistic drunkards. They use their authority to abuse and molest, while these innocent boys have their guards down. Years later, the scarred-for-life youngsters are released. They mature into traumatized adults who are bent on payback. Bang! Bang! One eating guard is already dead. That’s one down and three to go.

“Sleepers” awakened me from the start. The first hour chronicles the four lead characters as youngsters in the 1960s. This section showcases some stellar performances from its young cast, especially from Joe Perrino and Brad Renfro. I really felt for these boys as they entered the severe reformatory. The prison guards (led by the menacing Kevin Bacon) are quite frightening. As for the disturbing scenes of abuse, the movie doesn’t show graphic images, but what it leaves to the imagination is scary. There’s a scene where a character goes into the details and you just want to close your eyes and ears at the thought that God truly made this happen. Oh yeah, the movie is allegedly based on a true story.

The second half is where revenge comes into play. The boys become men and the story proceeds to be riveting in its own odd way. This section also features a parade of talented actors. “Sleepers” is actually one of those few films that doesn’t waste its all-star cast. In addition to Kevin Bacon, look out for: Brad Pitt as a two-face prosecutor, Robert De Niro as the priest with a moral dilemma, Dustin Hoffman as an inept lawyer, Minnie Driver as an emotionally involved friend, and Jason Patric as the grounded narrator.

As a film, “Sleepers” have a great sense of its characters and its place. It’s a personal story. It’s nostalgic, tragic, painful, but ultimately a powerful movie about people whose lives are damaged and in need of repair. Although revenge is the movie’s biggest theme, “Sleepers” isn’t limited on it. The characters realize that an act of vengeance doesn’t entirely fix what was broken. Despite the tragedies, the film does what it can optimistically do: celebrate life, living, and being in the company of friends who have been there for you.

Grade: A

Kevin Bacon, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Ron Eldard, Minnie Driver, Jason Patric, Dustin Hoffman, and Brad Pitt
Based on the book by
Lorenzo Carcaterra
Screenplay by
Barry Levinson
Directed by
Barry Levinson
Rated R for language, graphic violence and two scenes of strong sexual content