Friday, October 19, 2012

"Enemy of the State" (1998)

Starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman and Jon Voight
Written by David Marconi
Directed by Tony Scott
Rated R - Violence, language
Running Time: 131 Minutes

Robert Dean (Will Smith) is a successful lawyer at a law firm in Washington DC.  One day while buying Christmas gifts for his wife and son (Regina King and Jascha Washington) he runs into an acquaintance from college, Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee).  Zavitz has stumbled upon evidence that a powerful congressman recently found dead was actually murdered, and Zavitz is now being chased by NSA agents who don't want that evidence seen by anyone.  Zavitz drops the video into Dean's bag without him noticing, and is promptly killed by a fire truck while running from the NSA.

Soon enough, Dean finds himself under surveillance by the same NSA agents.  His phones are tapped, trackers are placed on his clothing, and more.  Worse, the NSA has planted evidence that Dean may be in bed with the mob, and cheating on his wife.  But that is only the beginning.  As Dean attempts to clear his name, he discovers the evidence about the congressman's murder.

With the government after him and his family and friends in danger, Dean has no choice but to track down a mysterious man called Brill (Gene Hackman), an investigator he's hired in the past through a mutual acquaintance.  Brill is a former NSA agent who Dean believes is the only one who can help him clear his name.  Now they'll have to get over their mutual dislike of each other in order to turn the tide on the corrupt NSA director (Jon Voight) who is responsible for everything.

The concept of security versus freedom is one that has been popular in films and television for quite some time.  Taking on this concept in blockbuster form is Tony Scott's popular 1998 thriller, "Enemy of the State."

The mid to late 1990s was a great time to be Will Smith.  Every movie he touched was a surefire hit, and with good reason.  Smith had a great taste for picking fun, crowd-pleasing ventures and "Enemy of the State" is no different.  Smith plays the charming, confident and successful lawyer.  We're introduced to him as he's working his magic, smooth-talking clients and even staring down the mob.  When he goes home, he's Smith as we're used to him: wisecracking with his son and wife, putting out that general 'Fresh Prince' energy.

So the problem is that Smith's performance is both a success and a failure - It's a success in that Smith is, as always, entertaining and watchable.  But at the same time, he hasn't done anything new here.  The entire performance is exactly what we'd expect from him and nothing more.

In fact, in general, this is how the cast of "Enemy of the State" falls.  Everyone here is doing exactly what you'd expect, and you like them for it because they're good at what they do, but there's nothing groundbreaking or risky here in terms of the performances.  But they're all good, so no worries there.

Although he gets high billing, Gene Hackman doesn't appear much in the film, mostly in the second half after Dean has found his life completely destroyed and he's on the run.  Still, even with his limited screen time, he makes an impression, as he always does.  He's clearly having fun as the intelligent but paranoid Brill.  He delivers his dialog practically crackling, and the script gives him a few good zingers, as well as letting him play at a few different action scenarios.

Tony Scott directs with a sure hand here.  "Enemy of the State" is a little lengthy, running over 2 hours, but it never drags.  It also never devolves into ugly, shaky-cam nonsense that some of Scott's later work suffers from.  He's careful constructing his images, making sure we always know what's going on, even when the camera is shaking around during the film's various chases.  Scott plays around with editing more than camera here, with lots of shots of security camera footage and satellite imagery, breaking up sequences into his usual music video style.  It works pretty well and keeps things flowing, and also keeps the viewer reminded just how dangerous the surveillance society can be.

Of course, sometimes the surveillance technology is just too much.  A scene in which NSA agents (amusingly played by Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy and Seth Green) are able to zoom around store security camera footage in three dimensions is eye-rollingly stupid. It's too implausible, pulling me right out of the movie.

Ultimately, "Enemy of the State" is an action thriller.  It has a few lofty ideas that elevate it, and the plot is reasonably complex, giving the solid script more heft than your usual empty blockbuster fare.  The cast is game, and the chases and gunfights are cool.  Tony Scott directs a winner.