Enemy of the State (1998)

reviewed by
Jeffrey Huston

Rated R
(for strong language
and violence)
Robert Clayton Dean: Will Smith
Brill: Gene Hackman
Thomas Brian Reynolds: Jon Voight
Carla Dean: Regina King
Rachel Banks: Lisa Bonet
David Pratt: Barry Pepper

Directed by Tony Scott. Produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. Screenplay by David Marconi. Distributed by Touchstone Pictures. Running time: 130 minutes. Release date: November 20, 1998.

(Jeffrey Huston's URL for this review, complete with pictures: http://www.impactprod.org/people/huston/enemy.htm )

As with a delicious gallon of Grade-A milk, it's sad to see a good movie turn sour. Okay, maybe that's not the best analogy, but you get the picture. A movie draws you in. It excites and intrigues you. Then it lets you down. That, in a nutshell, is producer Jerry Bruckheimer's ("Armageddon", "Con Air") latest film "Enemy of the State".

It is a promising re-teaming of Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott who collaborated previously on such entertaining and engrossing hits like "Top Gun" and "Crimson Tide". But the promise is broken after the film's first hour, resulting in a conspiracy thriller that is ultimately lacking in suspense.

"Enemy of the State" tries to create a sense of "X-Files" governmental paranoia minus the UFO's and paranormal. The story involves a lawyer named Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) who is unknowingly thrust into a high-stakes game of governmental cover-up. A chance encounter with an old college acquaintance results in Dean obtaining possession of a videotape that shows the murder of a U.S. Senator.

The catch is that the senator was murdered by a group of renegade FBI agents led by a top official at the National Security Agency, Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight). The problem is that Dean is unaware that he possesses this videotape. So when Dean becomes the focus of an unrelenting manhunt by Reynolds and his cronies, he naturally runs from this pursuit with paranoia surging through his veins. Dean's only hope for survival is an ex-NSA agent named Brill (Gene Hackman), a renegade patriot who is keen to Reynolds and his crimes.

The main problem with "Enemy of the State" is that it shows all of its cards way too soon. After about an hour, we the audience are made aware of every bit of necessary information concerning the plot and its characters. Robert Clayton Dean and Brill are still in the dark, but we aren't. We know exactly what they're running from and why they are in this situation.

Because of this, virtually all suspense is eliminated. By knowing everything, it disables us from completely feeling Dean's paranoia. As a result, the film's final hour ends up being just a series of chases and cloak & dagger rendezvous.

These scenes are tense for the characters, because they don't know what they are dealing with. We do, however, and as such most of the tension is eliminated. "Enemy of the State" goes from being a taut, exciting, suspenseful thriller to one that simply plods along as a technical cinematic exercise.

The cast is solid, with good performances being turned in by most of the leads. Will Smith makes up for his minimal acting range with charisma and sincerity. His fear and determination are very believable and he never seems out of his league around the likes of Oscar winners Gene Hackman and Jon Voight. Hackman is solid as always, effortlessly finding the right emotional level for every line and scene. It's too bad he doesn't show up until about an hour into the film, and then only sporadically until the end. Voight is good as the film's bad guy. But having played the heavy in such recent films as "The Rainmaker" and "Mission: Impossible", this performance by Voight is beginning to feel a little redundant.

The two lead actresses fare rather well in their roles. Regina King ("Jerry Maguire") brings her trademark energy to the role of Dean's opinionated wife Carla. Lisa Bonet (TV's "The Cosby Show") resurrects her career as Rachael Banks, an informant for Dean. Bonet's subtle yet vulnerable turn here is a very pleasant surprise.

While suspense in the story may be lacking, the filmmaking is not. Dan Mindel's photography mixes classic Bruckheimer visuals with fast dollies and jerky zooms. This adds a flavor of high-tech espionage and covert surveillance that is necessary to the mood of the film.

Chris Lebenzon's editing is jarring and uneven, but only when it needs to be. "Enemy of the State" is well produced from a technical standpoint, but it doesn't have a suspenseful story to support it.

Screenwriter David Marconi and director Tony Scott did the film a disservice in revealing everything about Dean's plight within the film's first hour. They would have better served the story (and its audience) by doing one of two things:

          One: only reveal information to us as it is revealed to Robert
          Clayton Dean. If our knowledge is limited to his, we will feel the
          paranoia and fear that he is experiencing. We would be on the
          edge of our seats right along with him. This is what Chris Carter
          and the producers of "The X-Files" understand so well. We only
          know what Mulder and Scully know (for the most part).
          Therefore, our emotional basis is their emotional basis. The
          trick is not knowing enough. In "Enemy of the State," we know
          too much.
          Two: if they want to reveal all of the information, then fine, that's
          their choice. In that case what they could have done in the film's
          second hour was add at least one or two more plot twists and
          surprises. You know, the whole "just when you think you know
          everything, you don't" type of thing.  By doing that, it grabs our
          attention again and sustains us until the film's conclusion.  But
          nothing new is added and the time seems to drag as we wait for
          the inevitable.

For the suspense that "Enemy of the State" lacks, blame should not be assessed to Will Smith. He does a fine job as an innocent yet frightened and paranoid man who is thrust into the overwhelming, lethal world of governmental espionage. His character doesn't know until the final quarter of the film why they are after him. Unfortunately for us, we pretty much know after the first scene.

URL for Jeffrey Huston's film review site "Believe Me": http://www.impactprod.org/people/huston/core.htm

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