Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State ★★★½

If for no other reason, ENEMY OF THE STATE is a worthwhile film because it gives us the answer to the trivia question, 'what film puts Ian Hart, Will Smith, Jon Voight, Gene Hackman, Jack Black, and Barry Pepper in the back of a van together for a scene?" However, beyond that novelty of placing that disparate group of actors together, ENEMY OF THE STATE is a first-rate action thriller. Period.

ENEMY OF THE STATE's discussion of civil security surveillance versus personal privacy and its showcase of cutting edge GPS and digital tracking tech are about 5 years to a decade ahead of their time. NSA privacy violations, WikiLeaks, and online warfare and monitoring would become hot-button mainstream discussions post-9/11, but Tony Scott was all over that discussion in this Christmas '98 release. As it is, the film deals in complex, almost magical surveillance tech to maneuver the plot along, but even with all of it, ENEMY OF THE STATE is mostly a straightforward John Grisham-styled thriller. Unfortunately, it's Will Smith who ends up in possession of the VERY sensitive video that is the catalyzes the film's tension.

Tony Scott's high energy filmmaking is all over this, and I love it. When I originally saw this years ago, I had trouble getting past Will Smith. Honestly, that's still the film's big problem, but this time I see mostly Scott's spy-camera, fast-moving narrative, and measured, yet frenetic edit and visual smorgasbord.

Smith, though. He's doing his best, but he's a star with a public persona, and he can't shed that from his central performance. I don't often like Smith's performances, and that's doubly true here. He's too brash (as per usual), but he's too young here. I'm not one to quibble over actors' ages, but he's not a good fit here. Smith's performance doesn't reek of the professionalism or maturity of a young lawyer. He exudes confidence, but what he's doing here is merely evoking the personal attributes that audiences attribute to his Hollywood stardom. His brashness, cocksuredness, sly one-liners, and the sense that in any moment he could wink at the camera. Even if you have an appetite for that type of bravado, as a performer in this film, he's just not the guy to go toe-to-toe with Hackman, who is on his game. For an old-school tough guy, Hackman is much more at home with the wireless technology, GPS, and computer downloads than Smith is. It has nothing to do with the story; it's that Hackman is marching to the beat of his character and to Scott's direction, while Smith seems to be marching a bit to his own beat, trying to do act and bring something different to his resume. However, he can't get out of the way of his own persona. As he tries to anchor his scenes to a serious character, he can't eschew that Will Smith big-man-on-campus bravado.

The film probably doesn't get made without Smith. In 1998, Hollywood was entering the final phase of the recognizable star-power-marketed film. And Will Smith was one of Hollywood's last relevant stars. In terms of opening a film, I'd argue that you only have remaining Tom Cruise (and he's fighting super hard to supposedly preserve the star-system business model, but to be honest, his fight may be to just stay relevant) and Leonardo DiCaprio if he aligns with an awards-profile-director at awards season. Apparently Cruise and Gibson each passed on it, but they would have added the leading man that the film needed. If Cruise had taken it on, it may have felt more like THE FIRM 2.0 (I.T. FIRM) having just completed the Grisham story with Hackman. It's hard to say how Gibson would have done, but at this point in time, Smith was not the experienced actor needed to steady the film. However, everything around him was aces.

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