Enemy of the State: Tony Scott Political Thriller Starring Will Smith

A vast improvement over his last effort, the pointless and redundant The Fan, Tony Scott’s new political thriller, Enemy of the State, aspires to belong to the great cycle of 1970s conspiracy-paranoia pictures: Three Days of the Condor, Chinatown, The Parallax View, The Conversation. Reteaming with producer Jerry Bruckheimer for the fifth time and with Crimson Tide’s actor, Gene Hackman, Scott shrewdly cast the very likable Will Smith in the classic role of an innocent Everyman framed for murder by a corrupt intelligence officer for unwittingly possessing vital information.

Highly proficient, and benefiting from the latest techno innovations in both sound and visual effects, this briskly-paced actioner is sporadically entertaining, though lacks the kind of political urgency and emotional resonance that were so crucial to the impact of the aforementioned 70s movies. In his first dramatic outing since Six Degrees of Separation, Smith, who in his big commercial films (Bad Boys, Men in Black, Independence Day) had co-starring roles, registers strongly and, with the assistance of a terrific male cast, should be able to guarantee a robust opening and a solid theatrical run in the next month or so.

In a powerful pre-credit sequence, a congressman (played by an unbilled Jason Robards), a vocal opponent to a new surveillance bill, is murdered by Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight), an ambitious NSA (National Security Agency) official and his ex-marine assistants in a public park while walking his dog. A subplot that echoes a familiar theme from Antonioni’s Blowup, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, and other thrillers discloses that a nature photographer, Zavitz (Jason Lee), has filmed the incident and now possesses the incriminating video about the “professioally wasted” politician.

Enters Robert Clayton Dean (Smith), a young hotshot attorney, respected by his associates and loved by his wife Carla (Regina King), an outspoken lawyer herself, and their young boy. An early scene, set in a restaurant, in which Dean threatens to expose tough mobster Pintero (the always excellent Tom Sizemore) to the Feds, turns out to be crucial later on, when all the participants return to this locale for an absurdly comic violent shootout that recalls Tarantino. This is no coincidence–Scott had previously directed Tarantino’s script for True Romance.

In the first of half a dozen chase scenes, Zavitz runs for his life while holding the much desired video. Accidentally bumping into his old college friend Dean, who happens to be shopping for sexy lingerie for his wife, Zavitz slips Dean the damning evidence and embroils him in a cover-up scheme that increasingly grows out of proportion and endangers all those around him. David Marconi’s script sees to it that his Everyman is gradually stripped of any contact to the human world. First, he’s removed from his job, then he’s asked to leave home by his suspicious wife due to incriminating photographs that link him with Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), his former g.f. and now colleague and confidante.

It takes precisely an hour for Gene Hackman to show up as Brill, a mysterious underground information-broker with a chip on his shoulder, having devoted his life to espionage and then dumped by the authorities. Once Brill enters into the field, the whole picture brightens up with much needed tension. Hackman is such a brilliant actor that he endows his role, which slightly recalls his turn in The Conversation (though without the latter’s richness of detail) with subversive edge and humor. Tale’s second half assumes the shape of buddy film, with Brill, who reps Dean’s only hope of survival, and his younger associate bickering, reconciling, cooperating, escaping the authorities, and bickering again.

Based on the timely premise that in today’s technology, anything and everything is possible, Marconi’s yarn could have gone deeper, with more psychological shadings into the issue of invasion into privacy. Though intended as a cautionary tale about the evils of surveillance, Enemy of the State doesn’t manifest the collective fears and anxieties generated by the n classic paranoia movies for the very reason that the zeitgeist has vastly changed. The 70s cycle expressed for the first time in American history deep mistrust of authority (political, military), as a result of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, contexts that are missing at present.

Unlike 1970s films, the movie lacks a strong hook to provide a sense of urgency–except for the timely honored motif of a wrongly accused man sinking deeper and deeper into a world where no one can be trusted. American audiences of the 90s are more cynical and savvier than those of a generation ago about the “endless possibilities” of the new infor technologies. Furthermore, among other things, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair highlighted the problematics of maintaining any kind of privacy and of clearly demarcating the line between the private and public domains.

Scott and Marconi’s strategy for rejuvenating a genre that politically is less pertinent and sacry today is to stress the techno aspects–and speed up the action; Enemy may be the fastest-moving picture in recent years. But there’s not much psychological complexity or moral ambiguity in the narrative for the villain are not only clear-cut, they’re also known to the viewers from the very beginning. That said, the film illustrates persuasively the new, intriguing notions of humans having split and “stolen” identities. In the course of the yarn, it becomes clear that Dean’s electronic identity is completely subject to manipulation and elimination by subtle institutionalized information-gathering, and that the only thing he truly possesses is his physical identity and emotions.

Scott, a stylist whose film work still betrays his origins in commercials, relies on a garden variety of attention-grabbing pyrotechnics. All the Scott touches from Top Gun onward, and particularly Crimson Tide, are evident here: blue and red lights flashing across the actors’ faces; fast and furious montages that sometimes spoil the fun of exciting action scenes; clamorous soundtrack, a staple in all of Bruckheimer’s pictures; heavy rains, here justified by shooting the movie on location in the Washington D.C. area in the winter.

The two women in the cast, King and Bonet, acquit themselves honorably, but the film decidedly belongs to the men–casting director Victoria Thomas should be commended for choosing a nearly perfect male ensemble. Smith proves that he can carry a movie on his sole shoulders and that his range can easily accommodate dramatic roles beyond the comedy-adventures he has triumphantly done.

Like counterpart Hackman, Voight, recently playing mostly villains, scores big as a ruthless officer, “America’s ultimate guardian,” who sadly realizes he may never accomplish his dream of becoming the agency’s head. It’s a pleasure to observe second-generation Hollywood thesps, such as Jake Busey as an ex-marine thug assigned to the dirty work, as well as some quintessentially indie actors in small but well-drawn turns: Gabriel Byrn, as a shrewd NSA agent masquerading as a cab driver, Jason Lee, as the conservationist who loses his life, James Le Gros, as Dean’s close associate, Ian Hurt and Loren Dean, as bright NSA agents.

As expected of Scott–and required by the techno thriller genre–production values are ultra-polished down the line. For the record, no less than 53 stunt players are enlisted by name in the credits.