Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State ★★★

Given the title, “Enemy of the State” seemed like an appropriate pick for my first post-slap Will Smith movie. Just like Robert Dean, Smith too is now a pariah whose success is being undone by negative headlines, marital troubles, and professional setbacks. I don’t want to spend too much time on my opinion about this whole saga, but I do think the aggressive backlash became a bit too all-encompassing for comfort. Sure, the way the incident was handled at the Oscars themselves was appalling. The people in charge of the ceremony are unequivocally guilty of failing to immediately and decisively hand out punishment for an egregious violation of basic civility, as are his peers who were in the room with him and celebrated and cheered his self-indulgent monologue about his status as the defender of those who can’t help themselves, a stunningly tone-deaf declaration. But cancelling all of his projects seems a bit much of a kneejerk reaction for my taste. I think Smith is good at what he does. He actively campaigned for the title of biggest movie star for decades and his resume, at least from the early 90s to the mid 2000s, suggests he succeeded. Whatever he touched was guaranteed gold and “Enemy of the State” directed by Tony Scott was another box office hit mainly thanks to his name being on the poster. Even if I think Dean is one of his worst characters and performances of the early days of his career.

Part of the problem lies with David Marconi’s script, which makes two fundamental mistakes that undermine the plotting during the first half and which the last hour isn’t able to fully undo. First, it keeps Dean in the dark for too long about why his life is being destroyed. Or I should really say he is too dumb to get it, which is weird, because everything we learn about him suggests a sharp, accomplished professional who has become one of the best in the business by staying several steps ahead of his adversaries. Here, he is always behind the curve and can’t figure out that the guy who bumped into him at the lingerie store and died mere minutes later, the highly suspect police officers showing up at his home and asking about whether he received a tape from him, and the meticulous character assassination campaign being launched against him are connected. He makes stupid choices, but Smith being the actor that he is plays him as his usual cocky, self-assured action hero and it’s a toxic combination. Dean is both an asshole and an idiot. At one point, he is explicitly told to stay off the radar. This is after he has been informed that the NSA is chasing him, and Gene Hackman’s character pulled half a dozen bugs off of him. And he still feels the need to make a phone call to tell his wife that he didn’t kill his ex-girlfriend. Speaking of Hackman, he doesn’t show up until an hour in and then disappears for another twenty minutes. That’s a problem because his interactions with Smith add a humorous note that the film until then is sorely missing. Unless you find Smith’s and Regina King’s flirting amusing, which I just thought was entirely out of place given the calamity they were facing.

Tony Scott was big into the idea of excessive surveillance and the virtually omniscient capabilities of the government to spy on its citizens. That would come back with a vengeance about a decade later in “Déjà vu”. “Enemy of the State”, which preceded 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act by a few years, makes a serious attempt to explore the repercussions of foregoing privacy in the name of safety, even if the message loses some of its gravity thanks to the increasingly preposterous plot developments. I’m not naive enough to believe that American intelligence wouldn’t kill or wreck lives to achieve their goals. They have done both over the decades all over the world whenever it suited the so-called “national interest”. But the swiftness and brazen erasure of Dean’s identity and reputation are clearly in the interest of establishing an immediate sense of urgency rather than serving as a realistic depiction of what an American police state would look like. Still, there is thematic depth here. Dean is certain that he has nothing to hide, but as soon as someone does a little digging, a whole bunch of questions are raised that endanger his employment, marriage and survival. Scott’s annoying filmmaking tendency of rapid-fire editing is amplified even more here by the jumping back and forth between cameras, photographs, and aerial shots to signify the almost instant transfer of information, but he wasn’t the only one in the 90s who was fond of that approach. He just never actually moved past it until the day he died.

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