SNEAKERS ** (1992). Directed by Phil Alden Robinson. Written by Lawrence Lasker, Walter F. Parkes and Robinson. Producers, Parkes and Lasker. Cinematography, John Lindley. Editing, Tom Rolf. Production design, Patrizia von Brandenstein. Music, James Horner. Cast: Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, David Strathairn, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Ben Kingsley, George Hearn, Timothy Bushfield, Mary McDonnell, et al. A Universal release. 125 min. Rated PG-13 (some violence and expletives).

"Sneakers," opens promisingly, with clever credits, humor and suspense. In December 1969 we meet a duo of graduate students: Dan (Gery Hershberger) looks like, and is photographed to be uncannily like a young Robert Redford. Cosmo (Jojo Marr) makes a passable young Ben Kingsley.

The two are computer hackers, hoods by certain standards, Robin Hoods by others. They steal from the rich and give to the poor by shifting accounts, debiting the Republic National Committee or Richard Nixon, and crediting worthwhile causes such as the Black Panthers. When the authorities raid , Cosmo is caught and Dan escapes.

Cut to the 1990s and widescreen. The real Redford plays the pseudonymous Dan Bishop, still a fugitive from justice. He runs a weird outfit of technical geniuses with spotty pasts: Sidney Poitier, a C.I.A. veteran; blind, cheerful David Strathairn, a whiz at sound detection who can read "Playboy" in Braille; Dan Aykroyd and River Phoenix.

This is the old motley crew of genre films, notably war movies like "The Dirty Dozen", "The Guns of Navarone" and a few thousand more. Is it coincidental that Aykroyd is called "Mother" like a character in the recent WWII picture "A Midnight Clear"?

What this outfit normally does should remain undivulged. Also what it does after it is approached by two Government types and blackmailed into a special assignment. I will only mention that it deals with an advanced, revolutionary little black box that can make enormous differences to secret services, governments or individuals.

So far, so good. In its early sections the movie is rather entertaining, although peculiarly uninvolving. The techno-jokes reach a peak with a Czech lady scientist who is horny for the creator of the black box and catches Redford red-handed. She doesn't get it, and a befuddled Redford comes up with very funny, nonsensical reasons dictated to his ear piece by his distant acolytes.

Fairly soon the overdone preliminaries make the film dullish. Reaches its central issue it becomes plain dull, with occasional bright spots, comic rather than thrilling. Even then, the fun is reduced by a non-stop impossibilities like a woman who meets and charms a nerdy scientist in record time to steal a pass; the nerd who is oblivious to a key word and to give-away clues as large as barn doors; the blind Strathairn who can manoeuver a truck by following radioed instructions.

The combined excesses of techno-gadgetry and plot twists make the movie tiring and tiresome, at the expense of the paper-thin humans who get no development, dimensions or personality. The filmmakers ought to have studied how Alfred Hitchcock dealt with characters, humor and mood.

The technology is outrageous. Access to the right equipment, setting up, applications and performances are instant, flawless and entirely unbelievable. Decisions are made and carried out in a flash. Coordination and synchronization are magically quick and perfect. Everyone, at any point, knows what to do, when, where and how, and does it without glitches.

"Sneakers" rapidly evolves into a sterile, dehumanized work. By comparison, not only are the James Bond yarns plausible, but Agent 007 is infinitely more interesting, amusing, likable and well rounded.

Plot-holes and murkiness abound. Liz (Mary McDonnell), Redford's unexplained ex-lover, is dragged in as a helper and presumably to rekindle the old flame as a bonus. Messily reintroduced is Cosmo (Ben Kingsley). Arbitrarily added at the finale is James Earl Jones as the Director of the National Security Agency. He is a filmic connection to "Patriot Games" where he was top dog at the C.I.A. It's a serious mistake to remind the public of "Patriot Games" which, whatever its implausibilities, was a much better movie and made a striking sequence of its C.I.A. satellite-to-supercomputer deadly game.

Production design and technical values are very good. The acting is not. Redford, an essentially reactive actor, is always "simpatico" but, amidst all the action and hullabaloo, remains a rather passive presence. He also gets cutesied up with a Karman Ghia car of the 1960s, in improbably good shape and -- hint-hint -- a reminder of his old, student rebel background. The other actors simply go through the motions and, to use computerese, peripherals.

In this age of information, the possession of the black box is intrinsically a very serious matter. But the uneasy mix of technology and jokes defuses its importance. A straight approach might have worked, as in that older Redford thriller "Three Days of the Condor." An outright comedy too, if, that is, a new Charlie Chaplin could be found to make "Modem Times." (Edwin Jahiel)

[Publ. 92-93]