Holiday Movie Month: "Enemy of the State" Review

Photo Credit: Touchstone Pictures

Holiday Movie Month: "Enemy of the State" Review

Rating: R (language and violence)
Length: 132 minutes
Release Date: November 20, 1998
Directed by: Tony Scott
Genre: Action/Crime/Mystery

In "Enemy of the State," Robert Dean (Will Smith) is the classic case of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is minding his own business, trying to buy gifts for his family, when he runs into an old school chum named Zavitz (Jason Lee). Unbeknownst to Robert, Zavitz has taken pictures that prove that a shadowy government agent named Reynolds (Jon Voight) murdered a member of Congress. When they run into each other, Zavitz is trying to escape Reynolds' henchman, and he throws the evidence in Robert's shopping bag. The National Security Agency (NSA) now thinks the two are in cahoots, and Robert becomes the titular enemy of the state.

Reynolds uses all the tools at his considerable disposal to begin ruining Roberts' life. He damages his credit and plants stories in the press that make the labor lawyer look like a complete fraud. As if his professional and financial ruination isn't enough, they also plant evidence of Robert having an affair with an old flame named Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet), which doesn't sit well with his wife Carla (Regina King). In a matter of hours, through no fault of his own, Robert's life is circling the drain, and several NSA agents are trying to track him down and possibly kill him. He has no choice but to run, which of course makes him look guilty to everyone around him.

The film shifts into full action mode at this point, including several chase scenes, and surveillance technology is being used to track Roberts' every move. Enter Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman), a mysterious man who knows more about surveillance than almost anyone on the planet outside of the NSA. He helps Robert escape the government's surveillance, teaching him that nearly everything can become a tracking device. With Lyle's help, Robert might just escape Reynolds' clutches, but trying to repair his tattered life and relationships might prove to be a much harder task.

In a world where Edward Snowden has announced that the government is keeping data on millions of phone calls and other personal information, "Enemy of the State" looks to be almost prescient, considering that it was released in 1998. The technology that the government workers use to keep tabs on Robert felt fictional when the film was released, but it now looks almost commonplace. Somehow, fifteen years after the film's theatrical release, the story looks more plausible than ever, as if this kind of thing could actually happen to some poor, unsuspecting citizen. In this sense, the film seems ahead of its time, even though the filmmakers couldn't have possibly known at the time what it was that they were tapping into.

Director Tony Scott also helmed "Top Gun," the film that made him famous and gave him the clout to make almost any film he wanted. In that film, he was recognized for his ability to make aerial combat look almost poetic; in "Enemy of the State," he uses similar filming techniques and lots of overhead shots to make the many chase scenes in the movie look gorgeous. There aren't all that many foot chases in films these days, as car chases and technology have taken a lot of the fun out of them. Scott is a visionary who realizes the excitement that a well-executed foot chase can bring, which is why Robert spends more than half the film on the run. It keeps viewers' pulses going and keeps them highly engaged in the film, which manages to be both cerebral and full of action.

Smith was fresh off the huge success of "Men in Black" and "Independence Day" when "Enemy of the State" was released. He had shown his action hero mettle by then, but always as the funny guy or comic relief. "Enemy of the State" gave him a chance to show that he could play the action hero without the swagger or funny antics, which likely helped his career. When funnymen like Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell try to play straight drama, audiences seem to balk, but Smith somehow managed to dodge that bullet and be accepted by audiences in both comedic and dramatic roles. "Enemy of the State" helped him prove early in his film career that he could do both, since he turns in a frantic, smart performance. His gritty performance not only helped his career but helped make the entire premise of the film completely plausible, even before Edward Snowden became a household name.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5