Enemy of the State (1998)    2 Stars

“The only privacy left is inside of your head”

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State (1998)


Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight

Synopsis: A lawyer becomes a target by a corrupt politician and his NSA goons when he accidentally receives key evidence to a serious politically motivated crime.

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For a rising lawyer, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith – Bad Boys, Men in Black), the hero of Tony Scott’s slick conspiracy thriller Enemy of the State, isn’t too bright.   Let’s face it, any man who’d pass over the delicious, devoted Rachel F. Banks (Lisa Bonet) for a loud and bossy wife (Regina Banks) who all but plants her fists on her hips and shifts her head from side to side each time she opens her mouth, really isn’t thinking straight.   But then, Dean believes his wife’s a size 6, so maybe she’s brainwashed him or something…

Even worse, though, is the way that he ventures alone into the domain of known mob boss Paulie Pintero (an uncredited Tom Sizemore – Heat, Saving Private Ryan) to present him with some damning videotape (remember that stuff?   It was a brown ribbon wound onto white spools and encased in black plastic).   Anyone with half a brain who was stupid enough to meet on Pintero’s turf in the first place should at least have a back-up plan, but not our Dean.   He just sits there looking vaguely worried when Pintero starts getting upset.   Perhaps he subconsciously regrets ditching Rebecca so badly that he prefers death to a life with Cleveland’s sister-in-law.   Whatever the reason, having generated a terrific moment of tension, the movie blows it by having the menacing Pintero offer Dean a week to provide him with the name of the person who made the tape.

Anyway, without knowing it, Dean comes into possession of a disc which shows oily career politician and head of NSA, Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight – Deliverance, Heat) overseeing the murder of a Congressman.   For reasons too convoluted to go into, Reynolds correctly suspects the law-abiding lawyer has the evidence that can put him away for life.   So, when Dean refuses to co-operate with the tactless agents sent to reclaim the disc, Reynolds sets in motion an operation to both discredit Dean and separate him from that cosy life about which he was, to be honest, ever so slightly smug.

What follows is a two-hour chase movie of blistering pace which is both riveting and frustrating, and which, given the horrific events of 9/11, is remarkably prescient in some respects.  The movie’s hook is its use of technology to track every move Dean makes in his desperate flight from their agents, and while things have moved on a lick since 1998, it still manages to look pretty impressive even as it crosses the boundaries of credibility.   We might just about swallow giant satellites manoeuvring in outer space to follow Dean as he runs across a Washington rooftop, but when NSA agents magically manipulate the images from a lingerie shop’s CCTV camera to show an angle from the opposite side of the shop to which the camera is situated some of us might suspect we’re being taken for fools.

Through Rebecca, his former lover, the hunted Dean makes contact with Brill (Gene Hackman – French Connection II, Unforgiven), a former NSA surveillance agent.   Those who know their movies will recognise echoes of Harry Caul, Hackman’s tortured surveillance expert from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in Brill, and there can be little doubt that his casting in the role is no coincidence.   He and Smith make an odd – and not entirely complementary – couple, but then desperation makes for strange bedfellows.   Brill is undeniably paranoid – but for a legitimate reason, and when he is unearthed by the agency through a fool act of Dean’s the two men are left with no choice but to join forces to turn the tables on Reynolds and his team if they hope to make it alive to the end credits.

It’s a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, so it’s to be expected that some aspects won’t make a lot of sense.   But Bruckheimer had a knack for sniffing out a strong movie, and Enemy of the State is an entertaining blockbuster from the days before blockbusters eschewed any real plot in favour of mind-numbing CGI effects.   The cast is quite extraordinary.   Supporting the headliners in tiny roles are established stars like Jason Robards (All the President’s Men, Philadelphia), Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, Assault on Precinct 13) and Philip Baker Hall (Air Force One, Judas Kiss), and there’s a host of other familiar faces, many of whom were yet to make a name for themselves.   Jake Busey and Scott Caan (Ocean’s Twelve, Lonely Hearts) play Reynold’s clean-cut, all-American, vaguely robotic foot soldiers, comic actor Jack Black (King Kong) plays it straight as one of the surveillance team, while Barry Pepper (The Green Mile, 25th Hour) is yet another member of Reynold’s all-stars.

Enemy of the State is one of those movies that you can tear to pieces as you watch if you so wish, but to do so would be a waste of brain power.   Bruckheimer’s movies aren’t made to hold together beyond a cursory viewing, and to analyse too deeply is to miss the point of them.   So accept it for what it is, sit back, and just let it wash over you…

(Reviewed 5th January 2016)

Click below for a free preview of the Kindle book, The Films of Will Smith.   The book, written by the author of this review, features reviews of all of the actor’s films, and is available to buy, or to read for free if you’re a member of Kindle Unlimited.




Enemy of the State Trailer



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