Enemy of the State

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer damn near atones for the inanities of Armageddon by turning out this dynamite thriller about the abuses of surveillance technology. To keep us glued to a complex, often maddeningly implausible plot, he borrows a trick from the master, Alfred Hitchcock, who knew you had to cast a star — say, Jimmy Stewart (The Man Who Knew Too Much) or Cary Grant (North By Northwest) — whom an audience would follow anywhere. Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott have wisely set their course by Will Smith, who is sensational in a dramatic role that leans on him to carry a movie without the help of aliens or Big Willie-style jokes for every occasion.

As D.C. labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean, who is married and the father of two, Smith infuses his performance with flashes of humor without compromising a situation that goes from bad to nightmare worse. Wife Carla (the wonderfully feisty Regina King), also a lawyer, thinks Robert is fucking his old flame, Rachel (Lisa Bonet), who is actually an intermediary between Robert and a mob boss (Tom Sizemore, hamming it up royally). While shopping for a sexy nightie to appease Carla, Robert is slipped a tape by a friend (Jason Lee). The tape shows the murder of a congressman (Jason Robards) by rogue forces in the National Security Agency, led by Thomas Brian Reynolds (a menacing Jon Voight). It's Reynolds who uses technology — and what an array of intrusive bells and whistles it is — to stalk Robert, get him fired, discredit his reputation, ruin his marriage and ultimately leave him marked for death.

Scott directs with a verve he hasn't shown since True Romance. It's a kick to to see today's spymasters portrayed not as graybeards but as twenty something frat boys with laptops. This geek brigade is played winningly by Loren Dean, Barry Pepper, Ian Hart and Jack Black. Still, it takes Brill (Gene Hackman), a veteran spy, to save Robert by making the freaked-out lawyer strip down to his boxer shorts to remove the bugs infesting the rest of his wardrobe.

Enemy of the State had me from Hackman's hello. What a pleasure to watch such effortless authority and control. Am I wrong, or is Hackman not the best character actor in the business? To add to the fun, Scott references Hackman's seminal role as surveillance expert Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 The Conversation by showing Brill holed up like Harry in a warehouse filled with bugging devices. It's a sight that also evokes other potent paranoid thrillers of the Watergate era, such as The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor.

Enemy of the State is not in that master class. A Hollywood gloss intrudes, along with a glibness that rankles, especially at the climax. The rousing fun comes in watching Smith and Hackman locked and loaded to do battle against the digital invaders of privacy. What do you say about a movie that sends you home in a frenzy to search for bugs? In the new age of Big Brother, that's entertainment.

From The Archives Issue 801: December 10, 1998
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