By Ty Burr
Updated February 26, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

Aperfectly pleasant computer caper, Sneakers deserved its modest theatrical success. Its lack of pretension makes it even more enjoyable on home video; it’s comfortably small. But there’s something serious at stake here: Robert Redford’s career as a viable modern movie star. While Sneakers proves he still has the goods, it’s really just the latest stalling maneuver in this actor’s decade-long search for on-screen relevance.

Behind the camera, of course, Redford has become a genuinely creative force. But to understand fully his dilemma as an actor, you have to consider the context in which he came of age. The matinee idols of the 1960s stars — like Redford, Paul Newman, and Warren Beatty — were the last of the Pretty Boys put forth by the dying studio system. And as the late ’60s kicked into the ’70s, these performers stood as vestiges of old-fashioned movie glamour, fighting uphill against a tide of cool misfits like Dustin Hoffman, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro.

With the ’80s, pretty boys were back again — but this was a different, younger, slicker crowd, led by smilin’ Tom Cruise. The older idols bided their time through the Reagan years, putting most of their energy into offscreen projects. Newman sold salad dressing and gave the profits to charitable causes. Beatty became the Compleat Filmmaker with 1981’s Reds, then hid out for the remainder of the decade (we won’t mention Ishtar). Sean Connery played golf.

And Redford? In 1980, he tried his hand at directing and bagged an Oscar first time out for Ordinary People. He hit a sophomore slump with 1988’s innocuous Milagro Beanfield War, but 1992’s deceptively placid A River Runs Through It is beloved by many moviegoers. Even more valuably, Redford has served as filmmaking activist and mentor, founding the Sundance Institute in 1981 to provide support for independent directors and writers. It already has been partly responsible for some of the better movies of the last decade: sex, lies and videotape and Reservoir Dogs, to name just two.

Redford has also lent his clout to specific film projects, including executive-producing two late-’80s movies by director Michael Hoffman. The first, Promised Land, is the lesser of the two, but its Springsteen-influenced slice-of-life theme is cousin to the dour family melodrama of Redford’s Ordinary People and A River Runs Through It. The second film, Some Girls, is a lovely oddity that starts as teen romantic comedy, veers into quirky sex farce, then keeps deepening until it’s about nothing less than men’s befuddlement in the face of women’s eternal mystery.

And in between all these good works, Redford has starred in the occasional movie. But his choices are strange — it’s almost as if he’s keeping his hand in for vanity’s sake. His last commercial successes came in the mid-’80s, with The Natural and Out of Africa; even then, he was a bit too old to play a star athlete and a bit too American to play a British aviator. His films since — the lumpy Legal Eagles and the Casablanca retread Havana — have been even more out of touch. Like the old-fashioned star he is, Redford relies on an iconic screen persona rather than on De Niro-esque acting technique. But he hasn’t redefined that persona so that it matters to a modern audience. It may just need some fine-tuning: He could conceivably pull a Cary Grant and play romantic leads into his 60s.

But he can’t do it alone: That lesson of Havana was learned in time for Sneakers. When he’s out there on a limb in a star vehicle, Redford’s detachment can seem unsettling; as part of a canny mix that includes young heartthrobs (River Phoenix), ballooning Saturday Night Live alumni (Dan Aykroyd), ace character actors (David Strathairn), and a costar lying surprisingly low (Sidney Poitier), he seems more engaged — and more engaging.

Sneakers isn’t a strong enough movie to break him out of his holding pattern, though. In a way, the film is descended from The Hot Rock, a droll gem-heist comedy that Redford starred in back in 1972. The plot has been given a ’90s twist: Computer hacker Martin Bishop (Redford) and his gang of techno-misfits are commissioned to steal a mysterious black box that turns out to hold a super-decoder. The box is just a MacGuffin, though — somehow the idea of breaking into the world’s computers doesn’t translate into visceral cinema — and the movie’s pleasures lie instead in the lazy interplay of the cast.

Sneakers even goes out of its way to give Redford some fascinating audience insurance. The movie opens in 1969, with a college-age Bishop, played by Gary Hershberger, hacking his way into Richard Nixon’s personal bank account, then going on the lam when he’s almost busted. Hershberger is made up to look exactly like Robert Redford circa Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (which came out in 1969); the kid has the older actor’s mannerisms down unnervingly pat.

It’s even more unnerving when you recall Brad Pitt’s portrait of the artist as a young Bob in A River Runs Through It. Redford may be aging with grace, but somebody’s making damn sure we keep remembering what he was in his youth. B