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Enemy of the State

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Enemy of the State

Starring: Will Smith, Gene Hackman
Director: Tony Scott
Rated: R
RunTime: 128 Minutes
Release Date: January 1998
Genres: Action, Suspense

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

A Film Review (in the form of a Q/A session) by Mark O'Hara

Q: Tony Scott has a reputation as a solid director of action films. Describe scenes from "Enemy of the State" that perpetuate this idea.

A: After a well-done but rather conventional opening, the credits roll, probably unwatched, over frenetic vantages of Washington D.C. exteriors, spliced into shots of high-tech monitors, screens showing vehicles tracked from satellites 155 miles above the Earth. Several times the camera freezes and jerks in perspective, creating an effect both fascinating and dizzying. Early on we witness chase scenes that leave us panting. One idea established early is that the government agents-gone-wrong - the ones doing the chasing - are ruthless and amoral; they are young and fleet of foot, their short hair standing up with gel. What is noticeable is the frequency of their failure, especially after they stop merely trying to trace Robert Dean (Will Smith) and really try to rub him out. This is a necessary convention. The pursuit we see is tense and original, showing the tenacity of one man, usually on foot, trying to recover his life. In a sequence inside a tunnel, Dean flees on foot as the agents converge; in a slick stunt he slips just in time out of a ventilation shaft and back into the tunnel, where he once again uses his wits to disappear. The vehicle chases are not as stunning as those in "Bullitt" or "The French Connection," but the scenes of Dean - and especially of Dean and Brill (Gene Hackman) escaping together -- are well choreographed and essential to the theme of individuals triumphing over a culture in which privacy is taking heavy hits. Scott shows his experience as a director with a penchant for action.

Q: Describe camera angles or shots that establish a mood of tension.

A: There are nifty Dutch angles arranged during an argument between Dean and his wife Carla (Regina King), her canted face yelling back at him. Clearly, Dean's life is being turned on end. We watch a surplus of scenes taken from satellites, as the operatives for the National Security Agency track their prey, bodies or cars bracketed by target lines as if about to be smart-bombed. Everywhere we look there is a sense of paranoia, including scenes in which the FBI is staking out an Italian restaurant. In these aspects the film hearkens back to things Copollian - "The Godfather," "The Conversation," even the eerily dark "Apocalypse Now."

Q: Describe the qualities that veteran actors Jason Robards (as Senator Hammersly) and Gabriel Byrne (as the pseudo-Brill) bring to their brief roles.

A: Their appearances are short but masterful. As Hammersly, Robards' acting is as transparent as the prose of a well-seasoned writer. We believe he is principled enough to refuse an offer he shouldn't have refused, and the plot hinges on his wrong decision. In his role as "Brill," Byrne acts with smooth efficiency and assurance, completing his assignment of throwing off both Robert Dean and the viewer. What casting!

Q: How do you think the role of Robert Clayton Dean affects the career of Will Smith?

A: A good move. I heard it said that this is his first starring role, but wasn't he at the head of the ensemble casts - if they can be so called - of "Independence Day" and "Men In Black"? (Plus, he's garnered the lines of James West, after first being touted as Artie Gordon, in "The Wild, Wild West.") Smith once again proves likable and believable in the way he relates to others, and he even manages to pull off two or three stints of comic relief in this chase-heavy drama. A cultural aside: Smith makes a canny self-reference to race when a mobster makes a bad choice of words. Other than this, Smith and his wife and son, along with Lisa Bonet as Rachel, are the only blacks in the cast; not much African-American culture is reflected here. And there are two Hispanics, one a nanny, the other a maid. The last word: I will pay to see Smith again, partly because I like his advocating of discipline and responsibility, both in his acting and in his music.

Q: Critique Gene Hackman's performance as Brill.

A: Ahead of the ideas and Smith's performance, Hackman is the best thing about the movie. First, his looks are perfect - a sixty-something original "techie" who went underground after a debacle in Iran in 1980. He is appropriately grizzled and stoic, his hypoglycemia adding to his gruffness. Brill has "disappeared" himself and surfaces only when contracted to gather information. As he demonstrates through his expression, his easy way of characterizing complex personalities, and his collection of subtle mannerisms, Hackman is one of the very best living actors.

Q: Explain the main conflict of the film.

A: After a member of Congress dies mysteriously, a Washington labor lawyer, Robert Dean, finds his career ruined and his life in grave danger. Officials in a renegade division of the National Security Agency are trying to recover a recording of the Senator's murder, and they stop at almost nothing along the way. (At least they do not kidnap the wife or kid: that would have turned the film into the worst kind of "jep" story.) For quite a while Dean does not know the reason he is being hunted; he thinks a mob boss is after him. In an ingenious conclusion, the main narrative meshes into the subplot involving the mobster's videotape the villains on both sides meeting in the kitchen of the Italian restaurant. Another twist is that something happens to the tape of the murder, and Dean enlists Brill's help to turn the tables on the government thugs. Yes, this film will inspire paranoia among many viewers, but a little thinking about the real speed of most government agencies will provide a sense of security!

Q: Is there too much action in the film? Are there enough ideas to balance with the action?

A: Having heard from one critic that the film was nothing but a collection of slick chase scenes, I went into the theater wary. I was pleasantly taken aback when I was not only entertained by the action, but fascinated by the implications. "Enemy of the State" is layered with meanings, ideas that build momentum just as surely as the plot builds to a climax. Because of how subtly these ideas accumulate, the film is deceptive in its power. We witness scene after scene of relentless pursuits, deteriorating personal lives, and a host of other cliches. Nevertheless, the material works. For one, we feel close to Dean and Brill; the number of jams they fall into and climb out of finally pushes the film well past mediocrity. And the handling of the issues of personal privacy, loyalty, and morality provides the viewer with plenty outlets for intelligent thought. I'm reminded of how a rather mediocre story like "Mr. Holland's Opus," through its time span and patient presentation of themes, became an outstanding film. "Enemy of the State" is from a different genre, but I think some of the same patterns apply.

Q: Would you recommend the film to a friend? Why or why not?

A: Yes, and I would urge the friend to feel free to hate it if he or she finds reason. Over the last several months, I have come across many negative early reviews, only to hear later that a film is excellent. Will I stop reading reviews of films before I see them? Of course not. But I'll remember how crucial it is to think for myself about the quality of a film, and I'll remember that part of that quality is highly subjective: Was it pleasing to me, and if it has been judged a poor film, were the critics' words valid? "Enemy of the State" contains some objectionable language, but mostly its R rating comes from violent scenes, especially one near the end. I think most viewers will be captivated by both its quick wit and action.

Copyright 1998 Mark OHara

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