Starr Chamber

Here we go again. Enemy of the State is Fascism in America 1998, Chapter Four ... or Five ... or whatever we're up to. It readily invites comparison to The Siege, but for better or worse its goals are more mundane. While The Siege seems like an ideological agenda driving a film, Enemy of the State is a popcorn thriller in which the filmmakers have merely dressed up a standard-issue plot device as a serious political Statement.

This is, after all, a Jerry Bruckheimer production. Bruckheimer, since the death of his partner Don Simpson, is the closest thing Hollywood has to an antichrist. (Professionally, of course. I'm sure he's a delightful man personally.) His string of hits, including Flashdance, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, Crimson Tide, The Rock, Con Air, and Armageddon, are not all bad. But they do epitomize the industry's most loathsome tendencies: bloated budgets over intelligence, special effects trumping characterization, and relentless visceral button-pushing in place of thought. You get the feeling that if he could, Bruckheimer would just as soon wire electrodes into the audience's medullae oblongatae, bypassing their front brains altogether. Hand him eight bucks, get zapped, and you're out of there in half the time.

Enemy of the State has one redeeming feature: Will Smith, as protagonist Robert Dean, provides a genuine warmth and charm usually lacking in a Bruckheimer movie. He goes a long way toward making the film palatable, despite its shrill hammering at our senses and its egregious plot holes.

Washington, D.C., labor lawyer Dean unknowingly comes into possession of a video that proves that National Security Agency functionary Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) oversaw the murder of a congressman (Jason Robards, not the only unbilled star in the cast) who opposed a bill that expanded repressive surveillance practices. (That the legislator is a Republican is the film's funniest joke.)

Dean doesn't have a clue why, but all at once his whole life is upended. His credit cards are voided, he is accused of malpractice, and, worse, he is publicly exposed as a philanderer. (It's interesting that we never find out whether any of these charges is true.)

In short, Enemy of the State is a cautionary tale about Ken Starr.
Luckily, Starr's office doesn't have the sci-fi resources at their disposal that Reynolds and his aide (Loren Dean) can call on. These include a worldwide satellite and videocam network that can read the labels on your underwear at the push of a button.

Despite the fact that these guys can instantly zoom in on anyone anywhere. Despite the existence of caller ID and telephone number databases. Despite the fact that everyone in the audience knows about these things, Enemy of the State still has a scene in which the bad guys have to wait while an incoming call is being traced. Sheesh! Can we please, please put that one to rest?

Dean's only hope is a mysterious renegade surveillance expert (Gene Hackman) who is savvy enough to know how to manipulate the bad guys' computer surveillance in Dean's favor; the expert is also savvy enough to know that contact with Dean is riskier than needle-sharing in an ebola ward. So Dean has to simultaneously figure out how to slip away from his watchers, force the expert to cooperate, find out why the baddies are after him, protect his family, and effect a power turnaround that will enable him to resume his life.

Hackman's surveillance expert lives and works in a heavily protected loft -- apparently the very same loft that the actor inhabited in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 The Conversation. In fact, an early sequence here is a direct ripoff of The Conversation's most famous setpiece. (The plot of Enemy also resembles Wim Wenders's ridiculous The End of Violence from last year, and if Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott wanted that to be a secret, they probably wouldn't have included two actors from Violence, Loren Dean and Gabriel Byrne, in their cast.)

What the hell. As long as we're nitpicking, let's mention three other things: (1) The filmmakers seem to think that the word shyster has a specifically Jewish connotation, as though it were derived from Shylock or sheeny, a notion ignored or soundly rejected in every relevant reference book I own; (2) Human beings cannot outrun cars; (3) It makes no sense for evil espionage types to stage a complicated dog-and-pony show around an enemy when they could simply have him and his family whacked in the first reel.

Scott, one of Bruckheimer's more stylish collaborators, so overdoes the vertiginous visuals with constant jump cuts and swish pans and animated, warp-speed zooms from rooftops to orbiting satellites, that airplane courtesy bags may be necessary for those with sensitive constitutions.

Enemy of the State has some effective thriller moments, but a little intelligence and some faith in the audience would have gone a long way toward making it a better film.

Enemy of the State.
Directed by Tony Scott. Written by David Marconi. Starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, and Loren Dean. Opens Friday.

 
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