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Non-Review Review: Enemy of the State

I have a soft spot for Enemy of the State, I must confess. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to see Will Smith in a great leading role, perhaps it’s the fact that this is one of those movies that actually became far more relevant after its release, or perhaps it’s the superb ensemble assembled by Tony Scott. I don’t know, I think it’s a lot of those things together, but – along with Scott’s superb Crimson Tide – I think that Enemy of the State can easily be considered one of the best things that Jerry Bruckheimer ever put his name too.

Brill dishes the dirt...

Enemy of the State was Will Smith at the peak of his fame. He was just coming off Independence Day and Wild Wild West was still a nightmare trapped inside some studio executive’s head. While Smith is certainly nothing to scoff at these days, and his presence is still a licence to print money, the actor was damn near untouchable in the mid- to late-nineties. And, truth be told, I have a very soft spot for the actor. I honestly think that he’s one of the very few actors who can pull off the much-lauded “every man” charm one associates with Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart.

While Enemy of the State was never going to be Oscar material, Smith does a surprising amount of heavy-lifting over the course of the film, as the man who finds himself the victim of the would-be police state. Playing a lawyer, Smith manages to be charming and witty without ever becoming goofy, powerful without chewing the scenery, professional without being dispassionate. It’s very hard to believe that I can buy The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a high-price pull-no-punches lawyer, but it’s to Smith’s credit that I do. Put simply, without Smith’s charm, the movie simply wouldn’t tie together, and it’s to his credit that it’s easy to underestimate how tightly he holds everything together – because he makes it look easy.

Will Smith was on a run of good films at the time...

A strong leading actor is really the first hurdle for films like this, and it’s where more than a few tend to fall. Once you get past that, you need a solid premise and a smart script. Much like Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State works on both a high- and a low-level, with a wonderful high concept, and clever execution. It does falter a bit in the mid-range though, occasionally being just a bit heavy-handed in getting its points across (we get it – privacy is good) and never especially subtle. However, these are flaws that can be overlooked with the help of a strong cast and a good director.

The cast is awesome. Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Seth Green, Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy, Regina King, Barry Pepper, Jon Voight and more than a few others. More than that, the vast majority of them are well used, with Seth Green seeming like an authoritative nerd, Jack Black seeming a bit untrustworthy and Jake Busey and Scott Caan seeming a little sleazy to be honest. Again, the characters aren’t drawn especially well, but they are cast well enough that it’s easy to keep track of everyone. In particular, Gabriel Byrne shows up for one of my favourite twists in any major blockbuster, which is a perfect example of a director knowing his audience (if only the posters didn’t ruin it – I was surprised the first time I saw it).

Listening closely...

Of course, there are more than a few stupid elements. While it’s fun, thematically, to see a lot of the digital wizardry Bruckheimer would bring to CSI being used for evil (a sign of how the times have changed, eh?), it’s still insanely irritating to see people do impossible things with technology… especially in scenes that are completely pointless. “Rotate us 15 degrees,” one nerd insists while looking at footage from a stationary security camera. “Enhance frame-by-frame.” All this leads to a plot point that could have been deduced through logic in a line or two, rather than spending a scene pushing the movie into the realm of science fiction.

That said, there are times when the film seems aware of the ridiculousness of all this, when they can’t identify a suspect from satellite footage because “he never looks up.”It’s absolutely priceless when a goon asks why this might be, and vows to manufacture his own more efficient spy satellites in future. Moments like this, along with Smith’s charming leading man status, prevent the film from ever seeming bloated or self-important.

Brill knows how to bug people...

I think the timing helps too. If this film were written in the wake of the Patriot Act, it would seem like the most awkward political diatribe ever conceived. I think the fact that it predates the attacks of September 11th serve to make the film seem less heavy-handed. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine that the political subtext (“the anti-privacy act,” one senator dubs the legislation) being more an after-thought than anything else, once somebody came up with the idea of Will Smith becoming a target of all the technological and information-age weapons the US government has at its disposal. So there’s no pretentious monologues, and no discussions about “freedom.” The viewer is left to make up their own mind.

Scott does some great work here. While not his best film, I actually think this is one of the few films that suits the “MTV editing”style that we’ve come to expect from action movies – favouring quick cuts over long establishing shots. It has become such a cliché that it’s painful to watch, but here the director uses it as a metaphor for the speed of the information age. Will Smith’s entire life can be taken away from him in the time it takes you to read this sentence, or the space between now and the next cut. Things are faster and frantic, and it actually fits the film – a film about how rapidly information can be received and spread, whether true or false.

One to watch...

Enemy of the State isn’t the perfect blockbuster, but it’s easily one of my favourites from the nineties. I just think Smith sells the film, and Scott delivers on top form. It’s smart, but it’s not self-important. It’s political, but it doesn’t insist upon itself. It’s fun, but it’s not stupid. It’s a great little thriller.

9 Responses

  1. i too love will smith. one of my absolute favourite actors. this was a very enjoyabe movie that i revisited recently and you’re pretty spot on; another movie i like to point to in terms of time of release is the bruce willis movie the siege. whilst it seemed unlikely to occur at the time of release you can almost sense that it’s the kind of thing americans might allow now under the name of patriotism.

    • Yep, but I do think that Enemy of the State works a lot better as an entertaining film than The Siege (although I am a little fond of that too, to be honest).

  2. This is also one of my favourite action films from the 1990s. Looking at it now highlights how relevant it is in today’s society – I don’t think the likes of Google Street View would be thought of as publicly and freely available software back when this came out yet the technology on show is far more advanced. Perhaps the scary thought is that now we have access to Google earth and Street View, the advanced software available to these secret agencies beggers belief.

    Great film though and Smith is at the top of his game.

  3. Guilty pleasure for this guy as well. Good action, with a good amount of humor (intentional or not) mixed in by the goons.

  4. I have a fondness for Enemy of the State. I did pick up the slightly extended DVD edition but never have gotten around to watching it yet.
    For me its that Im a sucker for Simpson/Bruckheimer films (Simpson had died at this time but still has his name on the producer credit).
    Im also a sucker for Tony Scott films. With Tony you know exactly what your going to get and I am fine with that.
    It was only three days ago that I had the CD score to this film on my player. Love the music by Trevor Rabin.

  5. You’re a very persuasive writer. I hated this film when I first saw it. Heavy handed, you say? Try heavy- hammered. I felt that I was being hit over the head at every chance. But based on your analysis alone I plan on seeing it again. I may not change my mind but I will certainly view it a bit differently this time out.

    Thank you!

    • Thanks. That genuinely means a lot to me, and I’m flattered that you’d try it again on my recommendation. I do hope you enjoy it.

  6. I’m fan of this movie, in a guilty-pleasure kind of way. Why I don’t think it’s exactly a “great” movie, it certainly is entertaining.

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