Enemy of the State

Enemy of the State ★★★★½

I’m Going to Watch Every Tony Scott Film

You know, I’d seldom use the word “smart” to describe a Tony Scott movie. The late director was known for bombast, flashy style and peak action movie nonsense and he wasn’t partial to super complex or cerebral stories. With all this being said, while I wouldn’t exactly say Enemy of the State is a super brainy movie, it’s certainly smarter than most of Tony Scott’s catalogue and it comes packed with a political message that makes it feel a hell of a lot more important.

The story follows a young labor lawyer (Will Smith) who’s the subject of an NSA manhunt after inadvertently receiving a tape showing an NSA official murdering a senator who opposes a controversial cyber security bill. What ensues is two hours of almost nonstop chase sequences as one man attempts to elude the surveillance and militaristic capabilities of a corrupt government agency, aided only by a paranoid private detective (Gene Hackman) and their collective wits. 

I really gotta say, for being a 1998 production, Enemy of the State is oddly prescient. Focusing heavily on issues of cyber security, the balance between privacy and safety and the government using personal data for nefarious purposes, David Marconi’s script is rife with stuff that’s perhaps even more relevant and biting today than it was 22 years ago. What seemed like paranoia to some in 98 is pretty much commonly held concern to most tech-literate people in 2020, actually helping this film to improve with age. I was waiting for some more really cringey or dated plot point to put itself in the center of this whole affair but, aside from some cliche and somewhat silly movie technology the NSA has here that doesn’t really exist, Enemy of the State feels vital and largely believable. 

But this is a Tony Scott movie, so it’s important to ask, is this an explosive and exciting thrill ride? Fuck yeah it is. Somehow, for 134 minutes, this movie manages to keep a breathless pace, a constant sense of forward motion and maintains a steady barrage of kinetic excitement. Most of this movie is a game of cat and mouse between Smith and the NSA and it hardly let’s up for a moment. This film slows down ONLY when it has to and it would prefer to give you plot information on the go rather than slow shit down to tell you stuff. This allows for an equal parts exciting and anxiety inducing affair that works spectacularly. The occasional shootouts are also good as hell. Tony Scott knew how to stage action scenes, man.

And the cast? Fuck me, the cast. Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Gabriel Byrne, Jack Black, Scott Caan, Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Jamie Kennedy, Tom Sizemore, Jason Lee, Seth Green, Anna Gunn, this cast is STACKED. A veritable who’s who of late 90’s talent both established and upcoming just peppers this film with familiar faces. If you like watching movies where almost any scene has a “hey, I know that guy” moment, then Enemy of the State is for you. Smith and Hackman in particular are great and have some fun chemistry. I also particularly like the fact that the NSA surveillance guys are played by the likes of Black, Kennedy and Green, playing them more as white collar, slightly nerdy tech guys rather than badass sinister villains. You can be bad and also kind of just be doing a job, which is something this movie portrays well.

I feel like Will Smith made such a name for himself in the mid to late 90’s with movies like Independence Day, Men in Black and Bad Boys that Enemy of the State gets a little lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame because this isn’t just one of the best Tony Scott films I’ve seen, it’s also perhaps Smith’s best movie from this era. This isn’t exactly a subtle political thriller, it’s exciting and periodically ridiculous in a way only Tony Scott could do, but it’s a timely movie that holds up remarkably well after all these years and has something of substance past the excitement. Equal parts entertaining and relevant, I’m shocked this movie isn’t more beloved. Rewatch this sometime, you might be surprised.

Recommended Double Feature Pairings:
The Fugitive
The Bourne Identity

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