movie review by
Gary Johnson

Enemy of the State


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Of all the producers working in Hollywood, few have greater influence on the look and feel of their movies than does Jerry Bruckheimer. Critics usually assign creative credit to the directors, but when you see a Bruckheimer production--whether it's The Rock (directed by Michael Bay), Con Air (directed by Simon West), or Top Gun (directed by Tony Scott)--you witness a continuity of design and theme that suggests Bruckheimer himself must be the true auteur.

Bruckheimer's newest movie, Enemy of the State (directed by Tony Scott), has what we've come to expect from him--a high-gloss surface sheen, hyper-kinetic camera work, and a target audience that's largely male. However this time around, Bruckheimer eschews the macho swagger so typical of his movies for a headfirst plunge into electronic surveillance technology. This is a movie for techno-geeks who love to marvel at super-expensive computers and gadgets.

In terms of plot, Enemy of the State owes a great debt to Alfred Hitchcock, in particular to North by Northwest. That means this movie is drenched in paranoia and propelled by non-stop chases. Will Smith stars as a lawyer who suddenly finds himself pursued by a powerful, sinister, and secretive branch of the U.S. government. In order to secure congressional backing for the "Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act" (a legislative act that will provide the government with complete freedom to monitor its citizens) certain government officials will stop at nothing short of murder--and Will Smith is their next target. He has no idea what's happening, but after a friend drops a highly-sought computer tape into his shopping bag (in Hitchcock parlance, the computer tape is the "MacGuffin"), government thugs are soon at his door. After he gives them the slip, he finds his credit cards are invalid and his name is smeared in the newspapers. Even his wife throws him out. Now, he's frantically running through the city streets while his pursuers use satellites to track his every movement and directional microphones to listen in on his every conversation.

Enemy of the State might work as a cautionary tale about the dangers of government eavesdropping; however, the filmmakers treat the electronics with such loving attention that any message is undermined. We get far too many camera shots of video surveillance systems at work, satellites spinning in orbit, and computer geeks barking out orders. The filmmakers love the gadgets, and by connection, they expect us to be wowed by them also. At its best, the movie suggests how dangerous our alliance with computers has become. We love computers, but we also fear them. They can make our work easier, and they can enhance our play; but they can also be used against us. But this isn't The Conversation, which is a classic tale of the dangers of surveillance. Enemy of the State evokes The Conversation through the presence of Gene Hackman in a supporting performance, and it also plays direct homage to The Conversation by using a photo of Harry Caul (Hackman's character in The Conversation) when the surveillance experts in Enemy of the State need an ID photo of Hackman. However, Bruckheimer and company aren't particularly interested in examining the dangers posed by computers and surveillance technology; they just use them for the gee-whiz factor.

While the filmmakers botch the political message inherent in this material, they don't botch the thrills. Enemy of the State is possibly the year's best action movie. As in the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, the filmmakers give us a situation where an innocent man stumbles into a dangerous situation and then through a misunderstanding he becomes the hunted. Enemy of the State doesn't contain any scenes that can rival Cary Grant running through a corn field while pursued by a crop duster, but it does give us several astonishing episodes, such as the scene where Smith is reduced to running frantically down the middle of the street, wearing nothing but his underwear.

Meanwhile, Hackman provides outstanding support as a surveillance expert (who is also an ex-government agent). He provides Smith with his only help. And Jon Voight is appropriately despicable--and completely believable--as a government official who spearheads the effort to win passage for the Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act. With the cool insouciance of a businessman who will do whatever it takes to get what he wants, he hands out orders to his henchmen. Also, Lisa Bonet appears in a small role as Smith's old college girlfriend, Jason Robards plays a congressman pressured by Voight, Jason Lee plays a wildlife researcher who accidentally films a murder, and Gabriel Byrne makes a cameo appearance.

Enemy of the State could very easily have become another testosterone-fuelled ode to violence; however, Bruckheimer and director Scott don't ask us to identify with the henchmen. They keep the focus on the hunted--primarily Smith and Hackman (and for a short while Jason Lee). Instead of pushing the violence to comic book extremes, the filmmakers focus on the frantic efforts of the hunted to survive. Meanwhile, Barry Pepper and Jake Busey play the thugs/psychopaths who love their jobs a little bit too much and Jack Black and Jamie Kenney play the techno-geeks who love their technology, no matter what it's being used to do.

Enemy of the State begins to run out of steam at about the 90 minute mark, but the filmmakers put together a stunning (and funny) final scene. The scene will no doubt seem familiar to anyone who knows Hong Kong thrillers such as The Killer, but it still packs a powerful punch.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]