Vigilante Chic Is Back

ON A HOT SUMMER DAY IN NEW York's Hell's Kitchen in 1967, four adolescent boys play a prank that nearly kills a man. They are sentenced to a year at the Wilkenson Home for Boys, where they are tortured and sexually abused by sadistic guards. In 1981 two of the boys--now streetwise killers--encounter the most brutal of the guards (Kevin Bacon) in a bar and blow him away. The assistant D.A. (Brad Pitt) who prosecutes the killers happens to be another of the abused kids; he's requested the case to lose it. Enlisting the support of the fourth boy (Jason Patric), a sympathetic parish priest (Robert De Niro), the neighborhood mafioso (Vittorio Gassman) and a broken-down defense lawyer (Dustin Hoffman), the D.A. masterminds a byzantine plot to get his old chums off and extract his long-desired revenge on the other guards.

That is the sensationalistic plot of Sleepers, director Barry Levinson's adaptation of Lorenzo Carcaterra's controversial novel, which the author claimed was based on autobiographical fact. Whether the book was true or not does not concern me; what's amazing about Levinson's star-studded movie is that it tells this highly charged story so ineptly that nothing rings true. The harder this overinflated revenge fantasy tried to whip my emotions to a boiling point, the deeper into boredom I sank.

The problems start with Levinson's script, which overemploys Patric's florid narration to tell you what you're about to see, what it means and how you should feel about it. When the adult actors take over and the courtroom drama kicks in, Levinson completely loses the focus of his story. Since the only villain we've gotten to know and hate is bumped off early, the D.A.'s elaborate payback has no dramatic impact--the audience can barely remember who these other bad guys were. Nor has Levinson bothered to give personalities to our abused heroes--Pitt, Patric, Ron Eldard and Billy Crudup. They have no identity aside from their victimization--which gives the actors nothing to play but shame. There's no tension in the court or in the D.A.'s dilemma--pretending to persecute his friends --because Levinson can't figure out from what point of view to tell the story. We have to be told the folks in Hell's Kitchen think Pitt is a fink, because Levinson doesn't dramatize it.

Rent the devastating ""The Boys of St. Vincent'' to see how slick and hollow ""Sleepers'' is, how little it reveals about the real nature and effect of child abuse. In truth, it's more like ""A Time to Kill'' redux, in which we are again encouraged to root for a lawyer to acquit a killer. Vigilante chic is big this year. ""Sleepers'' asks you to cheer when a priest perjures himself in front of a jury. If the film had worked, you'd cheer and let yourself feel ashamed afterward. As it is, you just look at your watch, wondering when this long, self-important travesty will be over.