In 1969, students Martin Brice and Cosmo are sneakers who hack into computer networks using university equipment, to redistribute conservative funds to various liberal causes. The police burst in and arrest Cosmo while Martin is out getting pizza, and Martin becomes a fugitive.
In the present day, Martin, now called Martin Bishop, is running a team of security specialists in San Francisco, including Donald Crease, a former CIA officer and family man; Darren "Mother" Roskow, a conspiracy theorist and electronics technician; Carl Arbogast, a young hacking genius; and Irwin "Whistler" Emery, a blind phone phreak.
Martin is approached by NSA officers Dick Gordon and Buddy Wallace, who know of his former identity. In exchange for clearing his record, he's asked to recover a "black box" from mathematician Dr. Gunter Janek, who has developed the box under the project name "Setec Astronomy" supposedly for the Russian government. Martin is hesitant but agrees to help. With help from his former girlfriend, Liz, Martin and his team secure the box, which is disguised as a telephone answering machine. During their subsequent celebration party, Whistler, Mother, and Carl investigate the box, finding it capable of breaking the encryption of nearly every computer system. Martin works out that "Setec Astronomy" is an anagram of "too many secrets", and issues a lockdown until they can deliver the box the next day.
Martin hands the box to the NSA officers, but quickly leaves after Crease discovers that Janek was killed the night before. He contacts a friend named Gregor in the Russian consulate, who confirms that the officers were rogue agents, and that Janek was working for the NSA. Before Gregor can elaborate further, fake FBI agents kill him and kidnap Martin to a remote location where he's reunited with Cosmo, who Martin thought had died in prison. While in prison, Cosmo developed ties with organized crime, allowing him to escape and become wealthy. He explains his plan to use Janek's box to destabilize the world economy, and offers Martin the chance to join him. Martin refuses, whereupon Cosmo uses the box to break into the FBI and connect Martin's current identity with his former name. Cosmo has Martin knocked out and taken back to the city.
Martin contacts his team and they relocate to Liz's apartment. They contact NSA agent Abbott, who wants the box but cannot offer assistance without it being in Martin's possession. Whistler analyzes the sounds that Martin heard during his kidnapping, and is able to identify the geographic area where Martin was taken. They find a toy company at that location, which is a front for Cosmo's operation. They track down Werner Brandes, the employee whose office is next to Cosmo's. They set Liz up with a fake computer date with Brandes to get his keycard and vocal recognition codes, while the others identify other security features of Cosmo's office. The team successfully get into the building to recover the box.
Brandes begins to suspect Liz during the date, and alerts Cosmo to a possible break-in. Once Liz mentions the computer date in Cosmo's presence, he realizes that Martin is responsible and locks down the facility and holds Martin at gunpoint. Again he tries to convince Martin to join him, but Martin refuses and instead turns over the box. The team escapes before Cosmo realizes that he is holding an empty duplicate of the box's case.
Back at their offices, Martin's team is surrounded by agents led by Abbott. After Martin points out how important the secrecy of the box is to the NSA, who could use it to spy on other agencies, Abbott agrees to clear Martin's record and grant the requests of the rest of his team. After Abbott and the agents leave with the box, Martin shows his team he has rendered the box useless by taking out the main processor.
In a postscript, a news report describes the sudden bankruptcy of the Republican National Committee, and the simultaneous receipt of large anonymous donations by Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the United Negro College Fund.Robert Redford as Martin Bishop/Martin Brice
Ben Kingsley as Cosmo
Sidney Poitier as Donald Crease
David Strathairn as Irwin "Whistler" Emery
Dan Aykroyd as Darren "Mother" Roskow
River Phoenix as Carl Arbogast
Mary McDonnell as Liz
Stephen Tobolowsky as Werner Brandes
Timothy Busfield as Dick Gordon
Eddie Jones as Buddy Wallace
George Hearn as Gregor
Donal Logue as Dr. Gunter Janek
Lee Garlington as Dr. Elena Rhyzkov
James Earl Jones as NSA Agent Bernard Abbott
Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes first conceived the idea for Sneakers in 1981, while doing research for WarGames. In early drafts, the character of Liz was a bank employee, rather than Martin's ex-girlfriend. The role was changed because Lasker and Parkes believed that it took too long for her character to develop.
Once Robert Redford was attached to the picture, his name was used to recruit other members of the cast and crew, including the director Robinson, who had little initial interest in the project but had always wanted to work with Redford.
At one point during the project, Robinson received a visit from men claiming to be representatives of the Office of Naval Intelligence, who indicated that for reasons of national security, the film could not include any references to "a hand-held device that can decode codes". Robinson was highly concerned, as such a device was a key to the film's plot, but after consulting with a lawyer from the film studio he realized that the "visit" had been a prank instigated by a member of the cast, possibly Aykroyd or Redford.
"I can't remember having so much fun on a movie," Stephen Tobolowsky recalled in 2012 for a 20th anniversary piece about the film for Slate. He had initially scoffed at the script based on its title alone, but his agent persuaded him to actually read it, and he reconsidered. Afterward, he told his agent, "Now I know what a hundred million dollars at the box office reads like."
"It was one of the most spectacular casts I've ever been lucky enough to be a part of," Tobolowsky wrote. When he was shooting the scene where he and McDonnell eat at a Chinese restaurant, Robinson told him he could do anything he wanted to make her laugh. "Dangerous words. It set the tone for the rest of the shoot," he recalls. "I played with my food. I made up lines (including one about pounding chicken breasts in the kitchen during our second date)." The rest of the cast and crew felt similarly. Near the end of the shoot Robinson said the only way it could have been better would have been if the lab lost the film, so they would have had to do it all over again.
The movie’s press kit was accompanied by a floppy disk containing a custom program explaining the movie. Parts of the program were quasi-encrypted, requiring the user to enter an easily guessable password to proceed.
The film received mixed reviews from critics upon its release. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan called Sneakers "[a] caper movie with a most pleasant sense of humor," a "twisting plot," and a "witty, hang-loose tone." Turan went on to praise the ensemble cast and director Robinson, who is "surprisingly adept at creating tension at appropriate moments" and "makes good use of the script's air of clever cheerfulness". Roger Ebert was less impressed, giving the film two-and-a-half stars out of four, calling it "a sometimes entertaining movie, but thin." He went on to point out numerous cliches and tired plot devices recycled in the film. Vincent Canby, in a negative review for The New York Times, said the film looked like it had "just surfaced after being buried alive for 20 years," calling it "an atrophied version of a kind of caper movie that was so beloved in the early 1970's". He singled out Redford and Poitier as looking and acting too old to be in this kind of film now. He calls the plot "feeble," resulting in a film that is "jokey without being funny, breathless without creating suspense". He calls the ensemble an "all star gang," but says the "performances are generally quite bad." It currently holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 47 reviews with an average rating of 6.8/10.
The film was a box office success, grossing over $105.2 million worldwide.
As of October 2016, NBC is developing a TV series based on the movie.