Sneakers – plot analysis

December 12, 2014

We’ve talked about this before:  Sneakers, a great cyberpunk film or the greatest? I’ve been interested in and thinking about heist plots, and decided to analyze the plot of this to try to pick apart just what makes it tick.  Let’s go!


We meet two hacker characters who will soon become our protagonist and antagonist. What’s established here: They start in the same place, but Cosmo is the kind of guy who will pull a sleight-of-hand trick on his friend to make things more convenient for himself. This will be important later. The whole movie is about reality, perception, and deception.

Act One

The Introduction: This is part of every heist movie. This is the normal job that our characters pull, that introduces everyone, their quirks, their personalities, etc. This film does a great job of making everyone distinct and interesting: the Blind Hacker, the ex-CIA Guy, the Conspiracy Nut, the Kid (oh, my dear River…), and the Boss.

The Inciting Incident: The group gets hired, and it’s an offer they can’t refuse because the clients know who Marty is — a fugitive. The stakes are suddenly big, more than just a paycheck.

They do the job. There are lots of clues, a few red herrings, some comedy, lots of competency. Basically, continuing the tone that was established with the introduction.

Note: The crew’s motivation in this act is money, and to clear Marty’s name. But mostly money. We learn each character’s heart’s desire, when they talk about how they’re going to spend the money. This too is important later.

End of Act One: The celebration at the end of the job, and the discovery that the job was maybe not what they thought it was.  The stakes suddenly become huge, and motivations change:  Now, Marty just wants to get rid of the box.  The plot blows up and becomes something different than it was before.

Act Two

We now have a villain. Our heroes have been played, and they must figure out by whom.

The tone changes: allies are murdered, our hero is kidnapped, and there is a revelation: Cosmo is still alive.  The stakes become very huge indeed, as Cosmo specifically reveals Marty’s identity to the Federal database, the very thing Marty was trying to avoid.  This is Cosmo’s revenge, and the low point of the second act.

Second half of second act:  Marty has no choice but to go on the offensive. His first goal is to protect himself and his people. After contacting the NSA, he learns that the only way he can do this is by retrieving the box. So that’s the new plan. Again, the goal has changed.The movie’s third heist/job proceeds, with the highest stakes yet.

Act Three

The third act begins with Liz’s capture, and Cosmo’s discovery that Marty has stolen the box back. Once again Marty has to reassess the situation and what his goals really are: the safety of Liz and the rest of the crew. Not money or freedom, but their lives.

The real pleasure of this story is that solutions to each problem spring from the personalities of the players. By this point, each member of Marty’s crew is already in place in make the rescue happen, by the events that have happened leading up to this moment. No shuffling is needed; they’re all right there, and we know they’re capable of what they do by everything that’s come before. This is extremely satisfying.

Marty retrieves the box by playing a sleight-of-hand on Cosmo, just like at the start. And Marty is confirmed to be someone who not only ended up in a very different place from where they both started — he is a better person, because he never once threatens to kill his former friend. For all his fugitive status, Marty really is a good guy, and Cosmo really is the villain.


This is where Abbott of the NSA shows up and agrees to supply them all with their hearts’ desires. The beautiful thing about this scene is that all the goals of all three acts, and the aspirations of all the characters, converge here.  They retrieved the box and delivered it to the NSA, just like they originally planned in Act One. They’re able to guarantee their safety and amnesty for the crap they found themselves wrapped up in, just as they planned in Act Two. And they saved their skins. Even though they don’t get the money, they get everything they had planned on spending that money on.  Their goals changed with each act, but they still managed to accomplish them all.  They totally win.


This is really quite a simple plot, for all red herrings and complex heist sequences.  Really, it’s a back-and-forth negotiation between three players: Marty and Crew, Cosmo and Henchmen, and the NSA. (Marty at first thinks he’s dealing with the NSA when he’s really dealing with the Henchmen. Then, he has to deal with the NSA in earnest. Marty’s motivation bounces back and forth between those two entities, Cosmo and the NSA.)

Things I noticed this time around

With the possibly exception of Marty, the characters aren’t doing this to save the world. They are motivated by money and by saving their skins. The movie fools you into thinking the characters aren’t quite so self serving because they’re all so likeable and charming. But no, they’re all totally self serving.

I didn’t think it had been all that long since I’d seen the movie, but this time around some of the outdated tech stood out more than it had before: they’re splicing magnetic tape to fake sound clips and that sort of thing. Hacking still needs hard lines. Fortunately, we watch for the engaging characters, not the tech.

Alas, some aspects of the film don’t hold up to close scrutiny. Namely, Liz. She’s kind of useless. There are two failure points in the third heist, and they’re both things that Liz does, glitches that are specifically hers — leaving her purse out for the target to discover her real name, and mentioning computer dating in front of Cosmo.  It’s almost like the movie doesn’t want any of the guys to seem incompetent after it’s spent an hour and a half showing just how cool they are.  The thing is, Mary McDonnell is so freaking charming that we don’t notice that Liz is basically there to make things go wrong so that the protagonists can look even better by solving the problems she causes.  This…annoys me, that they gave this role in the plot over to the token female character.  And she doesn’t even ask for anything from Abbott at the end. Grrr.

At the end, when Marty tells Abbott that the only thing the box is really good for is spying on Americans? Yeah, that scene kinda plays differently in a post-Snowden world. Erp.



7 Responses to “Sneakers – plot analysis”

  1. I love the movie, but the bit with the team locating Cosmo’s lair by having Martin recount the sounds he heard while in a trunk really strains my suspension of disbelief. I mean, I get what they were going for, but I still have a hard time with it.

  2. All I know is I want a Winnebego. A nice one. Also, after all these years, I still want to have River Phoenix’s baby, and I would really appreciate it if Science could hurry up and make that happen.

  3. carriev Says:

    We can start a club, Kelly.

  4. Linda T Says:

    I love that movie so much! I never really noticed that about Liz, though you’re right. The one thing I will say is that she was the only non-professional in the group. SeaTec Astronomy FTW!

  5. LupLun Says:

    Setec astronomy. The spelling is very important, remember.

    I saw this film for the first time not long ago, and it was indeed awesome. EXCEPT for the ending. It strained my suspension of disbelief that the NSA would let themselves be extorted by a bunch of crooks. In twenty-first century movieland, they would just shoot everybody, take the box, feed the media some likely story about a terrorist cell or somesuch, and get away scott free. But this was early enough in the 90’s that it was still the 80’s, and I guess we still trusted the government back then. That, or producers opted for the jokey ending instead of the realistic downer.

  6. Linda Says:

    You’re absolutely right! Pardon my misspelling. Was typing too fast and didn’t proofread.

  7. juliefore Says:

    What is kinda scary, is that I own Sneakers on DVD. I didn’t know there were other people ‘out there’ that like the movie too. 🙂

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