October 28, 1996 12:00 PM

Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Patric, Brad Pitt

Director Barry Levinson (Diner, Avalon) has always had a faultless ear for the rhythms of a neighborhood and the sounds of guys talking to guys.

Here he uses this perfect pitch to give Lorenzo Carcaterra’s controversial 1995 memoir a deeper resonance. In scenes so swiftly paced and assured that, watching them, we feel giddy shivers of horrified excitement, Levinson tells this tale of four boys who are taken from Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen to a reform school so brutal that later they will risk their lives to punish the guards who abused them. But the director also transforms this film into a brooding, suspenseful meditation on morality and loyalty, vengeance and forgiveness.

Stellar performances by De Niro as a priest forced to rethink his notions of Christianity and conscience, by Hoffman as a bumbling alcoholic lawyer, by Bacon as a sadistic guard and, in addition, by Vittorio Gassman as the neighborhood don make Sleepers gripping and powerfully affecting. The film is so compelling that we were willing to overlook several gaping plot holes and to endure the hard-to-watch violence of the reformatory scenes, not to mention a grating voice-over narration. (R)

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