A vast improvement over his last effort, “The Fan,” Tony Scott’s new political thriller, “Enemy of the State,” aspires to the level of the great 1970s cycle of conspiracy-paranoia pictures: “Three Days of the Condor,” “Chinatown,” “The Parallax View” and “The Conversation.” Reteaming with producer Jerry Bruckheimer for the fifth time and with “Crimson Tide” actor Gene Hackman, Scott shrewdly uses the very likable Will Smith in the classic role of an innocent Everyman framed for murder by a corrupt intelligence officer for unwittingly possessing vital information. With Smith and Hackman heading a terrific, mostly male cast, this briskly paced actioner should enjoy a robust pre-Thanksgiving opening and a solid theatrical run through the holidays.
Benefiting from a highly proficient use of the latest techno innovations in both sound and visual effects, “Enemy” is sporadically entertaining, though it lacks the kind of political urgency and emotional resonance so crucial to many similarly themed ’70s movies.
In a powerful pre-credit sequence, a congressman (an unbilled Jason Robards) who vocally opposes a new surveillance bill is murdered by ambitious National Security Agency official Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) and his ex-Marine assistants in a public park while walking his dog. In a subplot that echoes a theme familiar from “Blow-Up” and other thrillers, a nature photographer, Zavitz (Jason Lee), has filmed the incident and now possesses the incriminating video about the “professionally wasted” politician.
Enter Robert Clayton Dean (Smith), a young hotshot attorney, respected by his associates and loved by his wife Carla (Regina King), an outspoken lawyer herself, and their young boy. An early scene, set in a restaurant, in which Dean threatens to expose tough mobster Pintero (the always excellent Tom Sizemore) to the feds, turns out to be crucial later on, when all the participants return to this locale for a violent, absurdly comic, Tarantino-esque shootout (Scott did direct Tarantino’s script “True Romance”).
In the first of half a dozen chase scenes, Zavitz runs for his life while holding the much desired video. Accidentally bumping into his old college friend Dean, Zavitz slips Dean the damning evidence and embroils him in a coverup scheme that grows increasingly out of proportion and endangers all those around him.
In David Marconi’s script, Smith’s Everyman is gradually stripped of any contact with the human world. First, he’s removed from his job, then he’s asked to leave home by his suspicious wife due to incriminating photographs that link him with Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), his former g.f. and now colleague and confidante.
It takes precisely an hour for Hackman to show up as Brill, a mysterious underground information broker with a chip on his shoulder, having devoted his life to espionage and then been dumped by the authorities. Once Brill steps onto the field, the whole picture gains much-needed tension, and Hackman endows his role, which slightly recalls his more richly detailed characterization in “The Conversation,” with subversive edge and humor.
Tale’s second half assumes the shape of a buddy film, with Brill, who reps Dean’s only hope of survival, and his younger associate bickering, reconciling, cooperating, escaping the authorities, and bickering again.
Based on the timely premise that, with today’s technology, anything and everything is possible, Marconi’s yarn could have gone deeper, with more psychological exploration into the consequences of invasion of privacy. Though intended as a cautionary tale about the evils of surveillance, “Enemy of the State” doesn’t manifest the collective fears and anxieties generated by the classic paranoia movies, because the Zeitgeist has vastly changed. The ’70s cycle expressed, for the first time in American film history, deep mistrust of authority (political, military), as a result of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal, contexts now missing.
The pic doesn’t have a strong hook to provide a sense of urgency — except for the time-honored motif of a man wrongly accused, sinking deeper and deeper into a world where no one can be trusted. Scott and Marconi’s strategy for rejuvenating a genre that is politically less pertinent and scary today is to stress the techno aspects — and speed up the action; “Enemy” may be the fastest-moving picture in recent years.
But there’s not much psychological complexity or moral ambiguity, for the villains are not only clear cut, they’re also known to the viewer from the very beginning. That said, the film persuasively illustrates the new, intriguing notions of people having split and “stolen” identities.
As usual, Scott relies on a garden variety of attention-grabbing pyrotechnics. All the Scott touches from “Top Gun” onward, and particularly “Crimson Tide,” are evident here: blue and red lights flashing across the actors’ faces; fast and furious montages that sometimes spoil the fun of exciting action scenes; a clamorous soundtrack, a staple in all Bruckheimer pictures; and heavy rain.
The two women in the cast, King and Bonet, acquit themselves honorably, but the film decidedly belongs to the men — casting director Victoria Thomas has helped fashion a nearly perfect male ensemble.
Smith proves that he can carry a movie on his shoulders and that he can easily accommodate dramatic roles in addition to the comedy-adventures he has triumphantly done. Like counterpart Hackman, Voight, recently playing mostly villains, scores big as a ruthless officer, “America’s ultimate guardian,” who realizes sadly that he may never accomplish his dream of becoming the agency’s head.
It’s a pleasure to watch second-generation Hollywood thesps, such as Jake Busey as an ex-Marine thug assigned to the dirty work, as well as some quintessentially indie actors in small but well-drawn turns: Gabriel Byrne, as a shrewd NSA agent masquerading as a cab driver; Jason Lee, as the conservationist in jeopardy; James Le Gros, as Dean’s close associate; and Ian Hurt and Loren Dean, as bright NSA agents.
As expected of helmer Scott — and required by the techno thriller genre — production values are ultrapolished down the line.
For the record, no fewer than 53 stunt players are listed in the credits.