Enemy of the State (1998)

reviewed by
Jerry Saravia


With a title as generic as the movie itself, this latest Jerry Bruckheimer production is not as headache-inducing as "Armageddon" but it may still leave you with a slight migraine. That is not to say that "Enemy of the State" isn't fun, it is, but in a crudely packaged, sensationalistic way.

Let's consider the plot for a moment. Will Smith plays a labor lawyer named Robert Clayton Dean, whose life is already in peril before the plot thickens. He's facing problems with the Mob regarding a videotape and a troubling association with an ex-girlfriend (Lisa Bonet). By chance, he abruptly meets an old college friend of his (Jason Lee from "Chasing Amy") who slips a videotape into Dean's shopping bag. This tape contains footage of the murder of a congressman, and it is up to the high-ranking National Security Agency (NSA) officials to get their hands on it. This agency is run by Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight, the villain du jour), and he's eager to get the tape back since he was at the murder scene.

It's a Kafkaesque downfall for Dean, who can't use any of his credit cards and can't convince his wife (Regina King) that he's innocent of all these charges they've drummed up in the media, including an alleged affair with his ex-girlfriend. Worse yet, Dean's house and his entire life is bugged right through with high-tech surveillance equipment. Dean hides out and finds a certain Mr. Brill (Gene Hackman) who used to work for the NSA and can outwit any of those officials. Still, Dean is only a lawyer and makes stupid mistakes, like calling his wife. Wake up Dean, the phones are bugged too!

This film is illogical and senseless, but it moves at a fast clip. There are enough comical surprises by Smith, though the script makes him a little too bland for my tastes. He has a hectically funny scene where he pretends to be hotel hospitality, and undresses before a hysterical Oriental couple while the NSA are trying to catch him. Some scenes are unforgivably implausible, such as seeing Dean running down a tunnel in a white robe (wouldn't any car stop?); the NSA killing everyone they question except for Dean; a laughable Tarantino-like shootout between the Mob and the NSA, and so on.

"Enemy of the State" is a high-tech conspiracy thriller with no surprises or sense of real, imminent danger. It is too dependent on loud explosions and gimmicky, electronic music to remind us that we should feel tense. The outline of the plot is very similar to Coppola's classic "The Conversation," which was a deftly handled character study relying on dialogue and a quiet, understated style to convey the madness of privacy invasion. The other connection is the frenetic performance by Gene Hackman as a bug expert, practically the same role he played in "The Conversation," but with far less subtlety this time around.

All in all, this is an overdone popcorn thriller in the fast-cut, explosive style of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott ("Top Gun"). It'll keep you awake and you'll enjoy Smith's precious few quips, but you'll have forgotten about it by the next day.

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