Enemy of the State (1998)

D: Tony Scott
S: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight

Entertaining action thriller from director Tony Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as super-hyphenated, hi-octane, roller-coaster, action-packed, and over-the-top as ever. This time it's The Conversation for the Con-Air generation, with labour lawyer Will Smith pursued by a group of hi-tech snoops in the employ of sinister National Security Agency boss Jon Voight after a chance encounter with old schoolmate Jason Lee, who has video evidence of the murder of congressman Jason Robards by Voight's men. Voight is out to ensure a bill passes which allows the NSA greater powers to invade people's privacy, and he uses all the means at his disposal to ostracise Smith from his peers by planting spurious stories in the media linking him to organised crime and to sexy investigator Lisa Bonet before tracking him down and eliminating him. Fortunately, veteran snoop Gene Hackman pops up and reluctantly agrees to help our hero evade his former comrades in arms.

Another tale of post-cold war espionage which posits that in the absence of external threats, the eyes of the conspirators have turned inward. Lacking the direction of fighting an identifiable 'alien' foe, those skilled in intrigue have lost direction and simply perform their duties on their fellows without pause for thought or moral conviction (a theme in Ronin also). It does not stretch quite so far as its predecessors in the 1970s conspiracy film however, providing convenient comfort with a sneaky resolution which posits that this movie's bad guys were operating outside the domain of Government after all; a case of the machinery being right but the operator being wrong.

After a slow and reasonably dramatic beginning, the film concentrates on a series of well mounted chase scenes, pumped up to the proverbial max by Scott's penchant for dynamic framing (courtesy of Dan Midel's cinematography) and rapid-fire editing (thanks to Chris Lebenzon). Smith, who is less likable than he can be in the lead (Independence Day, Men in Black), is harassed, harangued, and hounded by a team of young actors playing techno-boffins, heavies, and strategists in a variety of extravagant ways, including several lengthy scenes of pursuit across a variety of terrains and numerous big explosions and car crashes.

It's loud, stupid fun with a certain sense of its own inanity. Hackman's character alone, replete as it is with references to The Conversation (including the use of a still from that film in an NSA file and a whole sequence directly copied from the opening of that now legendary paranoid masterpiece), demonstrates the canniness of the filmmakers, who are not unaware of the thematic possibilities of their material. They do choose an escapist tone in dealing with it, which smacks of postmodern cowardice, but at least Scott is as efficient a button-pusher as ever, and is capable of spinning a yarn with energy and conviction. The presence of its older cast members, especially Hackman, gives it some weight, but this is a broad, cartoonish fantasy which never comes close to being serious and provides much amusement if you are willing to allow it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.