Enemy of the State

Jerry Bruckheimer is a rarity in contemporary Hollywood, a brand-name producer whose moniker often precedes the titles of his consistently glossy, raucous crowd-pleasers. He’s marketed himself well, to the point where the beefy, crew-cutted guys behind me at the late showing of Enemy of the State could be heard chatting about him.

“Who’s this Bruckheimer guy?”

“Ah, man, he’s great. He made Con Air and The Rawk.”

(Pronounced just like that, but with awed reverence: The Rawwwwk.)

Bruckheimer’s name promises, I guess, a certain kind of movie experience, an expert action picture that you can straight take to the bank. But quality-wise, I’d argue that the movies actually vary widely. The Internet Movie Database, f’rinstance, lists the following 1995 flicks under Bruckheimer’s name (and partner Don Simpson’s, though he died soon afterward): Crimson Tide, a surprisingly good men-yelling-at-each-other submarine movie, Bad Boys, a mediocre action flick that launched the career of ADD-afflicted movie director Michael Bay, and the atrocious Michelle Pfeiffer vehicle Dangerous Minds.

Enemy of the State is another surprisingly good Bruckheimer film, and maybe it’s to his credit that this one pairs the veteran director of Crimson Tide, Tony Scott, with the immensely charming young actor who helped keep Bad Boys afloat, Will Smith. Of course, Smith has made a name for himself since then with the blockbusters Independence Day and Men In Black, but, for the first time, Enemy of the State is really his picture.

It may also have been Bruckheimer’s idea to make Enemy of the State as a cross between Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and Coppola’s The Conversation, with Smith playing the Cary Grant role and, um, Gene Hackman playing the Gene Hackman role. Through an unlikely series of circumstances that I won’t spoil for you here, Smith finds himself on the run from some vast government conspiracy that’s using high-tech bugs, satellite photography, and surveillance cameras that seem to be on every street corner — or at least in every convenience store, office building, and lingerie shop — to track his every move. As he struggles to fend off the bad guys, figure out what he has that they want (and just where the hell he might have put it), his life falls apart. The conspiracy is tugging at the strings that control his personal habits, his credit lines, and his relationship with his loving wife.

Enemy of the State is far too comfortable with its own glossy technology to be a convincing paranoia flick — Scott whips and zips the camera from earth to outer space with near-fetishistic aplomb. The guys in the row behind me kept exclaiming at appropriate points, “No way!” “Get out!” and “Oh, man!” which just goes to show that these filmmakers know exactly what buttons to press. Car chases, explosions, and shootouts are handled with particular aplomb by Scott and what must have been a huge stunt crew, and Smith’s increasingly unlikely escapes from certain doom lend a knowing, Indiana Jones-like quality to the proceedings. I was also fond of the behind-the-scenes crew of tech geeks who keep the systems running, cracking wise as they tighten the noose around our hero’s neck.

By the time Hackman shows up late in the film as a sort of grand old man of surveillance technology, the story is really bubbling along. It’s Will Smith’s movie, and he does indeed show a wide enough range to carry a big-budget thriller on his back. Not that this is an especially demanding role — the script bends over backwards to exonerate Smith’s character of all but the purest intentions. But with due respect to Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson, Smith may be the first real black everyman to be embraced by Hollywood and movie audiences alike.

The bad news is that, at 120-something minutes, this feels every bit as long as it runs, and could have used some firming up in the development stages. Before the movie was even over, I had started wondering whether it could have been made better by keeping the audience in the dark about the who and the why instead of spilling the beans in, basically, the prologue. And while there are some clever moments all the way through, I would have enjoyed a more elaborately staged resolution to the plotline.

In the final reel, Scott brings all of the movie’s threads together the same way he handled the climax of the nifty True Romance — by putting as many characters as he can in a single room, with a bunch of guns pointing at each other. In The Siege, which pretended to be about something bigger, that felt like a cop-out. In Enemy of the State, which pretty much jettisons any pretensions beyond a general “personal privacy is a good thing” mantra, it’s only a little unsatisfying. Enemy of the State may not be the best flat-out action picture of the year (I guess that honor is going to John Frankenheimer’s Ronin, another 70s throwback), but it’s enough to restore my confidence in Hollywood’s ability to put out a pretty good movie and a popcorn-muncher at the same time. Thank you, Jerry Bruckheimer.


Directed by Tony Scott
Cinematography by Daniel Mindel
Edited by Chris Lebenzon
Starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1
USA, 1998

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