ENEMY OF THE STATE
Reviewed by Harvey Karten, Ph.D. Touchstone Pictures Director: Tony Scott Writer: David Marconi Cast: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jan Voight, Barry Pepper, Regina King, Loren Dean, Jake Busey, Lisa Bonet, Gabriel Byrne, Jason Robards
Not so long ago there was a great deal of concern about security in the ATM's. Depositors were getting mugged at an alarming rate and citizens' groups were frightened. Legislation was enacted to answer their concerns. Security guards were posted and, to help deter criminals, surveillance cameras were installed in all booths. While the public were not completely mollified, few voices of innocent citizens were raised in protest. Some cities began installing similar surveillance cameras in subways, always scary places, while other cameras were located on lampposts in city streets. Not even the American Civil Liberties Union was particularly piqued.
In 1998, just about the only use of electronic gadgetry that disgusted large segments of the American people was the operation of telephone tape recorders to chronicle one silly woman's descriptions of President Clinton's peccadilloes. Yet these wires are about the simplest, most basic, most unsophisticated devices known to spies. Why are these details mentioned in a review of "Enemy of the State"? Simply because the premise around which the movie is framed is flawed. The audience wants the hero to fight a knave that all can agree is positively evil. Since the government officials who make life difficult for a nice Washington lawyer want only congressional permission to extend information-gathering technology in a country that is increasingly threatened by terrorism, the folks staring at the screen may just wonder what the commotion is about. Oh, sure, the higher-ups may engage in extra-legal tactics to get their way--such as murdering a congressman who opposed the escalation of spy gear--but aside from that, and from the fact that they are eager for a promotion, are they really the incarnate evil we love to hate?
This blemish aside, "Enemy of the State" is a top-notch, edge-of-the-seat thriller that puts actor Will Smith in his first major, starring role, and he comes across terrifically as a likable guy because he's such a human hero. He's no macho soldier of the Kurt Russell variety. To the contrary. He's befuddled a good deal of the time, especially when he is ordering lingerie in a store brimming with compliant models you'd expect to see in a Victoria's Secret catalogue. He's understandably flustered when he finds himself on candid camera more than any subject deserves to be, and chased down unmercifully by government thugs working under the orders of the spiffily-dressed apparatchik of the National Security Agency who looks remarkably like former defense secretary Robert McNamara. What makes his situation all the more pitiable is that he's carrying a computer diskette that they want and that he does not even know he has.
Since "Enemy of the State" is a collaboration between the premier action-adventure producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Tony Scott, we can expect lots of fireworks, and we get all we want, almost incessantly without a breather to check our credulity meters. Director Scott, noted for such popular films as "Top Gun," manages to shoehorn a secondary plot which meets up with the main story to provide a clever, fiery finale to the proceedings. Throughout, Scott displays an impressive array of computer gadgetry that can cough up a man's vital and other statistics in seconds when government nerds feed it a picture of the hapless prey.
Establishing that attorney Robert Dean (Will Smith) dislikes organized crime's infiltration into a labor union, the action picks up when a powerful congressman (Jason Robards) who opposes legislation favored by National Security Agency official Reynolds (Jon Voight), is murdered while playing in the woods with his dog. The crime is accidentally photographed by a bird watcher, whose presence was picked up by an NSA crew of nerds. His phone is tapped, and he is chased by the officials who want to recover his digital photos. When Dean unwittingly receives the evidence, he becomes the target of the assassins. While Dean must avoid being apprehended for reasons he is not aware, he is in hot water as well for his relationship with a former girl friend, Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), his wife (Regina King) throwing him out without believing a word of his story. (Despite her membership in ACLU she is convinced on little evidence that her main man is guilty of adultery.)
Director Scott often puts his cameras into high gear with some awe-inspiring jump shots--including a really long shot of a satellite allegedly 154 miles in space without which little surveillance would be possible. He establishes Dean's relationship with an eccentric electronics expert, Brill (Gene Hackman), who was thrown out of Tehran after the Shah was expelled and who has since bottled himself up in a totally secure building with a stack of monitoring equipment.
Of the two big, rousing chase scenes, one is reminiscent of "Ronin," though this time the victim races from the perps on foot via the dividing line of the freeway. The big shootout that climaxes the action results from Dean's artfully contrived setup, which convinces his new pal, Brill, that he is anything but the stupid man that Brill thought him to be.
Perhaps the audience would get better clues to the villainy of Reynolds' scheme to bug the country if scripter David Marconi threw in ways that the average Joe could be adversely affected. As critic Roger Ebert says in his review, an innocent bystander in the Ken Starr investigation had her tax returns audited, her neighbors and employers questioned, and her adoption of a war orphan threatened all because she testified that Kathleen Willey had asked her to lie about a meeting with President Clinton. We must go back to the Ancient Greeks for inspiration (as did the creators of "A Bug's Life.") The most important word in the vocabulary of the Athenian philosophers was "moderation." We must always seek a balance between the desires of government for more powers to control crime and the needs of the American people for privacy. "Enemy of the State" does not really give us pause to think about lofty issues like that one, nor must be require it to do so. It's a popcorn thriller with a wonderful performance by the warm-and-fuzzy Will Smith who proves that you don't need big muscles, a large piece, or even military training to be an uncommon hero.
Rated R. Running Time: 127 minutes. (C) 1998 Harvey Karten
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