Retro-recommendation–Sneakers and River Phoenix, 20 years later

River Phoenix in Sneakers

Born in a log cabin in Oregon 43 years ago this month, River Phoenix was raised much like the character he played in the acclaimed film The Mosquito Coast.  He was born into a flower child family and grew into a vegetarian, member of PETA, and supporter of saving the rain forests.  He was an activist, a creator, a musician and actor who no doubt would have been a key figure in the mid-1990s American culture had he not died from an overdose of narcotics outside of Johnny Depp’s club in L.A.  He was 23 years old and has been gone 20 years this October.

Like other famous people who died before 40, like James Dean, Buddy Holly, Jim Morrison, Brandon Lee, JFK, Jr, Chris Farley, Karen Carpenter, Andy Gibb, Princess Diana, John Belushi, and–as we revisit the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., 50 years after his “I Have a Dream” speech this week–you can’t help wonder what someone like Phoenix would be doing had he not made a wrong life turn back in 1993.

Phoenix in Sneakers

All said, Phoenix didn’t make a lot of movies, but what he made was memorable.  He first was noticed by American audiences in the sci-fi kid film Explorers (1985) opposite Ethan Hawke and the following year in Stand By Me (1986) along with Wil Wheaton, Jerry O’Connell, and Corey Feldman.  That same year he played the son of Harrison Ford as part of a family at the fringe of society in The Mosquito Coast.  Three years later he played Indiana Jones himself in a flashback opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  He was beginning to receive serious actor street cred for My Own Private Idaho and Running on Empty, which earned him a supporting actor Academy Award nomination.  And those are the highlights of his career, except for one other movie, our retro recommendation of the week, the all-star ensemble cast espionage/crime/thriller/drama Sneakers.

Sneakers poster

Sneakers featured River Phoenix in what could have been his first major adult film role among the likes of the best of the best in Hollywood.  Sneakers stars Hollywood’s elite: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell, Timothy Busfield, and a young Donal Logue, and Phoenix managed to hold his own among this crowd.  Sneakers is the Ocean’s Eleven of 1992, a hip looking and sounding movie where the actors and a strong script came together to form a great, fun movie that holds its own today with nothing “dated” about it, despite this dated trailer:

Phoenix plays the youngest of a band of ex-con and ex-government security techs who break into security systems for companies wanting to make sure their businesses can’t be broken into.  You can tell that Phoenix was comfortable as an actor and his future prospects were only going up.

Phoenix and Poitier in Sneakers

Sneakers has heists and mystery and spies and action but most of all it is a very funny movie with many memorable scenes.  It could be the most enjoyable film you’ve ever seen featuring any of the lead actors, which is saying a lot considering of all the Oscar winners and nominees headlining the film.  If you missed this one check it out on Netflix or other video services–you won’t regret it.

C.J. Bunce

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