Dark ‘90s Crime Drama With A-List Cast Still Captivates Decades Later, Stream Now

By Shanna Mathews-Mendez | Updated

When I first saw Sleepers, when it was released in 1996, I was still young and impressionable enough to be horrified by stories like the one laid out in this film. All these years later, the story is one worth remembering, and the movie is one worth watching.

Stellar Cast Shines Brightly

Rather than ask who’s in Sleepers, you have to ask who isn’t. Brad Pitt, Jason Patric, Billy Crudup, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Brad Renfro, Ron Eldard, and, of course, Kevin Bacon as the big bad. The list goes on. Each actor takes a brilliant turn, and it is likely largely thanks to the sharp direction by Barry Levinson, who proves capable of managing this kind of creative power.

Innocence Shattered by Tragedy

Sleepers opens with four boys running the streets of the 1960s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York. They’re guided gently by their local priest, Father Bobby, played by Robert De Niro. They’re good kids, but of course they’re also rough and tumble.

As a prank, they steal a hot dog cart and accidentally send it racing down the steps of the subway. As it crashes to the bottom, it seriously injures an elderly man who had been standing there. The boys are sentenced to a year in a juvenile detention center, and while there, they are violently raped and tortured by the guards, led by Kevin Bacon’s character, Sean Nokes.

A 13 Year Time Jump

Sleepers jumps forward 13 years, and we find two of the boys, John and Tommy (Eldard and Crudup), now hardened criminals working for a local gangster. They come across a much older, frailer Nokes sitting at a bar. They confront him about their abuse, and he shakes them off, making a joke at their expense.

Right there, in front of witnesses, the men blow him away, firing multiple rounds and terrifying everyone in the restaurant.

Sleepers Becomes A Procedural Drama

The other two boys, Michael and Lorenzo, have grown up to become a bit more respectable. Michael (Pitt) is now a deputy district attorney and Lorenzo (Patric) is now working at the New York Times. It is at this point in Sleepers that the movie becomes a bit of a procedural crime drama as Michael and Lorenzo, who goes by the nickname Shakes, work diligently to have their friends found innocent in this seemingly open-and-shut case. 

Michael gets himself assigned to the case to prosecute John and Tommy and hires a drunk, lazy attorney, Danny Snyder (Hoffman), to defend them. Michael’s plan is to essentially throw the case and work behind the scenes as a puppet master for Synder. Meanwhile, Shakes works overtime to dig up the history of the other guards who abused the boys. 

Freeing John And Tommy

There is no real suspense or mystery in Sleepers. The film works chronologically, telling the tale of brutality in this boys’ detention center, with Kevin Bacon coming in as the most believable violent pedophile perhaps in the history of Hollywood. So, you already know what is happening and why.

The real question of the movie is whether Michael and Shakes, with the help of Hoffman’s Snyder and De Niro’s Father Bobby, not to mention Carol (Driver), the boys’ childhood friend, will be able to pull off their plan and free John and Tommy. 

A Tale Of Horror


Whether this specific story is true or not, and according to Patric’s narration, it is, the themes in Sleepers are true. The friendships are true. The horror is true. And the idea that a single choice, a single mistake, can determine the rest of your life is very, very true.

Sleepers has an audience rating of 85 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which indicates that its worth watching to bear witness to all the truths this story tells and the star-studded cast that helps tell them.