Sleepers (1996): Levinson’s Ensemble Drama, Starring Brad Pitt, Jason Patrick, Dustin Hoffman, De Niro

“Sleepers,” Barry Levinson’s legal drama, based on Lorenzo Carcaterra‘s 1995 novel of the same name, is an uneven film, boasting an excellent multi-generational ensemble of actors, but relying too heavily on voice-over narration and lacking dramatic energy.

While a title card at the end states that Carcaterra stands by his story, the The New York youth correctional authorities and the Manhattan District Attorney‘s office deny the police corruption and physical and sexual abuse of youth depicted in the fact-inspired film.

The narrative is divided into two parts, the first set in 1966-1968, and the second in the fall of 1981.  In the first half, we are introduced to four young boys, Lorenzo “Shakes” Carcaterra, Thomas “Tommy” Marcano, Michael Sullivan and John Reilly  (played by Joseph Perrino, Jonathan Tucker, Brad Renfro and Geoffrey Wigdor respectively) who live in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.

The qaurtet of amigos work for local gangster King Benny (iconic Italian actor Vittorio Gassman) who uses them to deliver bribe money to the local police precinct on a weekly basis. The other meaningful adult figure is Father Bobby (Robert De Niro), a one-time petty delinquent himself, who likes them and functions as surrpogate father.

On a hot summer day in 1967, the boys play a prank on a Greek American hot dog vendor, stealing his cart. A near-fatal accident occurs when the cart falls down a subway station staircase, crushing James Caldwell (Don Hewitt) at the bottom of the stairs.

Sent to court, they are tried and found guilty of reckless endangerment, and are sentenced to serve time at the Wilkinson Home for Boys in Upstate New York.

Life in prison is rough:  The boys are systematically humiliated, beaten, abused, and finally raped by head guards Sean Nokes, Henry Addison, Adam Styler and Ralph Ferguson (played by Kevin Bacon, Jeffrey Donovan, Lennie Loftin and Terry Kinney respectively).

When the guards put together a team of inmates to play a football game, the four boys decide to use the game as an opportunity for revenge against the brutal guards, who forever have tained their lives.  To that extent, they ask Rizzo (Eugene Byrd), who the guards tend to leave alone, to lead the inmate team in the game. Rizzo agrees, and the inmates win, but their victory is short-lived as the guards again physically abuse the boys, this time around throwing them into solitary confinement, while Addison actually beats Rizzo to death.

The boys are eventually released and drift apart.  But life is not the same, and the past comes back to haunt them. Cut to 1981, 13 years after Wilkinson, John and Tommy (Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup), now gangsters, encounter and murder Sean Nokes, who works as a private bodyguard in a Hell’s Kitchen pub.

Shakes and Mike (played by Jason Patric and Brad Pitt) enlist the help of  childhood friend Carol Martinez (Minnie Driver), Father Bobby, a local cop named Nick Davenport (Daniel Mastrogiorgio), mob boss King Benny, and  struggling lawyer Danny Snyder (Dustin Hoffman), to work on their friends’ acquittal, while determined to expose the abuses committed at Wilkinson’s.

An assistant District Attorney, Mike arranges to be assigned to the case, secretly intending to lose as a means of getting revenge. Shakes is a low-level editorial assistant at the New York Times, where he uses contacts to gather invaluable info on the Wilkinson guards. A social worker, Carol uses her office to access private files.

Adam Styler, now a policeman, is arrested by the NYPD‘s Internal Affairs division, led by Davenport, for murdering a drug dealer. Henry Addison is murdered a few days later by gangsters led by Little Caesar (Wendell Pierce), Rizzo’s older brother, who has learned the truth surrounding Rizzo’s death from King Benny.

The film’s last reel is quite disappointing as it’s strtcured as a rooutine courtroom drama. Ralph Ferguson, now a social worker in Long Island, is discredited as a character witness for Nokes as the abuses perpetrated by the guards are exposed.  Violating his moral code, Father Bobby compromises and lies on the stand about where John and Tommy were on the crucial night of the shooting. The priest swears under oath they were with him at Madison Square Garden at a Knicks basketball game. As a result, the jury decries that the boy are not guilty.  In the last, upbeat scene, the four are reunited for a party at a Hell’s Kitchen bar.

An epilogue reveals that after the trial, John and Tommy returned to their criminal lives and lost their lives. Tommy is murdered and John succumbs to alcohol poisoning. Mike determines to quit practicing law and moves to England, working as a part-time carpenter.  Staying in the city, Shakes pursues journalistic career, while Carol, who never married, raises a son in Hell’s Kitchen named John Thomas Michael Martinez, nicknamed “Shakes.”