This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
The opening words of Barry Levinson's “Sleepers” are, “This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood.” That's careless writing; how, exactly, does it run deeper than blood, and how deep is blood? But after seeing the film the words I remembered were, “This is a true story.” I doubt it is anything of the kind, and Lorenzo Carcaterra's novel, which inspired the movie, has been convincingly attacked on its claim to be based on fact.
All movies are in some way fiction, so what does it matter? The Coen Brothers' “Fargo” claimed to be based on a true story, and they admit it wasn't; the “true story” bit at the beginning was just a stylistic device. With “Sleepers,” however, the claim is meant seriously, and that bothers me, because it shows moral decisions being made which, in the real world, would have had real results.
The film tells the story of four friends from the west side of New York--Hell's Kitchen--and how they grow up in a tough but protective neighborhood, where the moral poles are Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) and King Benny (Vittorio Gassman), the Mafia boss. When the kids are 13, they steal a hot dog wagon and it rolls down subway steps and crushes a man. They're sentenced to a reformatory where they are tortured and sexually assaulted by a sadistic guard named Nokes (Kevin Bacon).
Now I will have to reveal plot points. There is a flash-forward to the summer of 1981. Two of the boys, now about 28 and gangsters themselves, walk into a restaurant, see Nokes, and shoot him to death. They are brought to trial. But one of the original four, Shakes (Jason Patric) now works for a newspaper. Another, Michael (Brad Pitt), is an assistant D.A. They fashion a scheme in which Michael will try the case in such a way that their two old friends will beat the rap.