Thursday 3 April 2014

Movie Review: Enemy Of The State (1998)

A classy techno-thriller, Enemy Of The State finds a groove where political conspiracy meets sleek action and rides it all the way to excellence.

At a secluded park, Washington DC National Security Agency official Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) arranges for the murder of Congressman Phil Hammersley (Jason Robards), who is opposed to the passage of legislation that would give security agencies expanded powers of surveillance. The murder is captured by a hidden camera deployed to film wildlife. The digital file of the assassination ends up with corporate lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), who is grappling with an ugly case involving mafia corruption. Dean gets help on his court cases from old flame Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), a go-between with a mysterious investigator known only as Brill.

To recover the incriminating file Reynolds activates an illicit operation to track Dean's movements, infiltrate his life, and destroy his credit, marriage and reputation. By using satellites, commandeering surveillance networks and deploying the latest spy bugs and tracking devices, Reynolds' team force Dean into a life on the run. An attempt to frame Dean for murder forces him to seek help from the reclusive Brill (Gene Hackman), an ex-NSA agent. Together Dean and Brill have to find a way to end Reynolds' reign of terror.

One of director Tony Scott's more intelligent outings, Enemy Of The State was perceptive in 1998 but became a frightful predictor of reality 15 years later when whistleblower Edward Snowden lifted the lid on the actual surveillance reach of intelligence agencies. If Enemy Of The State was exaggerated by the imagination of screenwriter David Marconi, it ironically became a template for agencies to strive for in the Patriot Act era.

Intersections with reality aside, the film is a slick thrill ride. Scott creates an almost plausible narrative to hang the action on, and the story of an innocent but smart victim getting snagged into a sprawling conspiracy is a modern interpretation of a classic Hitchcock theme, but with a better MacGuffin in the digital assassination file.

The pacing is brisk, and the visual style is consumed with all that satellite, camera, computer and snooping technology has to offer. The opening 30 minutes set up the premise with professional care, allowing the hectic middle third to launch with breathless precision as the technology is unleashed to turn Dean's life into a living nightmare. The final act is clever, as Marconi finds a blood-soaked but satisfying climax, Dean arranging for his problems old and new to meet in a greasy kitchen filled with hidden weapons and short tempers.

Enemy Of The State was the first serious role that Will Smith tackled after achieving superstardom, and he demonstrates plenty of charisma and control to channel his energy away from comedy and towards the rollercoaster man-on-the-run structure. Smith still gets to unleash some funny ad-libbed lines, but for the most part Dean is a man hunted by much greater forces, and has to deploy wit and desperate physicality rather than humour to stay alive.

Two veterans provide distinguished support, Jon Voight and Gene Hackman carrying their well-earned battle scars into a final confrontation between political expediency and lone wolf ideology. The film also gets the demographics of the techno-wizards right, a young and dishevelled group including Jack Black, Scott Caan, Jake Busey and Loren Dean tapping away at the array of keyboards to deploy surveillance technology as a weapon of mass intimidation. In addition to Robards as the world-weary Senator, Gabriel Byrne shows up in a small role as the frantic Dean tries to track down Brill.

Prescient and pointy, Enemy Of The State is a frightful vision of what could happen when glitzy tools fall into the grubby hands of the paranoid and power hungry.

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