This is one I missed when it came out. It’s Sleepers from 1996, featuring such notables as Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman., and Brad Pitt. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime Video, allowing me to get these screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia. This is a crime, social justice, courtroom drama, with a story going back to 1966. It takes two and a half hours to run, so I had to wait for some serious slack time to watch it.
Four kids grow up in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, which I will explain later. Suffice it to say, in those days this was not the toniest place in town. It’s also the setting for West Side Story.
Anyhow, the place is the definition of multi-ethnicity, with scads of Italians, Hispanics, Jews, maybe some Irish, but I couldn’t tell. The four pals live in the streets, and about the time their hormones are beginning to kick in their lives go to shit in single day. They hit upon the grand idea of ripping off a hot-dog vendor, and they end up making off with his cart. When the cart goes down the steps to the subway and puts a man in the hospital the law cracks down on them with a vengeance.
They are sent to Wilkinson Home for Boys, a place in upstate New York that is dressed out as a prep school but is in in actuality Attica writ small. The guards brutalize the boys, employing beatings and sodomy. One boy who helps in a scheme to humiliate the guards in a touch football match is beaten to death. The boys remain quiet, under threat of retaliation, and they vow to carry their debasement to their deaths.
But one, Michael, has taken an interest in The Count of Monte Cristo, the story a man, falsely imprisoned, who escapes and plots vengeance.
Thirteen years after they get out it’s 1981, and two of the boys are hardened criminals, one with a record of multiple murders. The two are in a pub one evening when they spy the key guard, Sean Nokes (Bacon). They sit themselves across the table from him, introduce themselves, and shoot him multiple times.
Unfortunately, there are multiple witnesses, and the men are put on trial for second degree murder. One of the kids, Shakes (Jason Patric), has grown up to become a newspaper reporter. Another, Michael (Brad Pitt), is now a prosecuting attorney, and he wrangles the job of prosecuting his two pals. The back history of the four is secret due to their age at the time of their crime, so Shakes’ scheme is to get the two killers off and also to work justice on the Wilkinson Home and its guards. He arranges for washed-up lawyer Danny Snyder (Hoffman) to defend the killers. His scheme is to throw the case.
A part of the scheme is to bring back one of the guards, a friend of Nokes, to testify as a character witness for the victim. Snyder has all the dope on the Wilkinson guards, and his cross-examination eviscerates the corrupt Wilkinson culture.
Additionally, a friendly priest (De Niro) testifies he was attending a Nicks game with the two killers at the time of the crime. The killers are not convicted, and after the trial they meet for the final time in their lives. Within a few years both the killers are dead from their life styles.
It’s an interesting story and one that could have been told in less than two hours, but I had the time. As a historical note it’s the tale of a place whose time has passed. Hell’s Kitchen came to my attention while I was still in high school and before West Side Story. Out of high school and in the Navy, I got a glimpse of Hell’s Kitchen when my ship docked on the Hudson shore. One of the guys in my division was from the neighborhood, and he went by for a visit and got knifed.
A few years later I was back, doing some work at the Post Office building nearby, and we would sometimes wonder over to Manganaro’s for lunch. This was in the early 1970s, and at the time it was not a place you wanted to be alone or after dark.
Times have changed:
Since the early 1990s, the area has been gentrifying, and rents have risen rapidly. Located close to both Broadway theaters and the Actors Studio training school, Hell’s Kitchen has long been a home to learning and practicing actors, and, in recent years, to young Wall Street financiers.
It does take some of the spice out of the story.