Archive Review: Enemy of the State (1998)

In a post-9/11 era, moviegoers are no longer fazed by the idea that the government can utilize technology to the fullest extent in tracking and monitoring citizens. We also understand that this (debatably) infringes upon our civil liberties. Since then, dozens of films have warned us of the dangerous extent that technology can take us to, and that rubs off some of the sheen for government agency thriller-lovers trying out “Enemy of the State” today as opposed to over ten years ago.

A great movie is never dated and “Enemy of the State” definitely is, with Will Smith’s hunted character Robert Dean getting all angry at Gene Hackman’s gibberish description of a GPS, which is secondhand knowledge for first graders these days. We all know the power of satellites and how the government can bug anything with a mic, tracer or camera. In 1998, we didn’t. So there’s little novelty to this movie for anyone well-versed in post-9/11 thrillers — even for those who’ve seen more recent Tony Scott-directed films. “Enemy” must then hinge more on its story, which it didn’t when it was released, and the story is just average. It’s a bit unfair to what was probably a better movie in its day, but time is one of film’s most challenging tests.

Starring Smith when he was riding high off of “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” “Enemy” is about a lawyer who accidentally comes across evidence he doesn’t know he has that would expose a giant murder cover-up by that National Security Agency. Naturally, the NSA, led by Jon Voight, wants it at any cost, and using all sorts of technology strips Dean of everything. This convinces him to start running, where he eventually crosses paths with a former NSA tech (Hackman), who represents his only chance of shaking them off.

Though the originality of the film fades with age, what improves is the who’s who in the cast. In addition to Smith, Hackman and Voight, small roles are played by Jason Lee as the guy who plants the evidence on Dean in the first place, Jack Black as a tech servant of the NSA, Barry Pepper as an NSA field op (“Saving Private Ryan”), Jamie Kennedy, Philip Baker Hall, Lisa Bonet, Gabriel Byrne (“The Usual Suspects”) and Scott Caan (“Ocean’s Eleven”).

“Enemy” is your typically fast-paced thriller with the government going after the lone fox. It’s a bit on the longer side, but it moves quickly at most points. Its only a weak story as far as drama and relationship. Dean’s relationship with his wife (Regina King) throughout all this and their history of him cheating on her with Bonet one time years ago pops in and out and breaks the over-arching concept that should be driving the movie: Dean wanting to figure out what the hell is going on. He doesn’t seem to wise up to pursuing that answer until much later on.

Dean’s relationship with Brill, Hackman’s character, also feels forced and pointless. They have a “I need you as much as you need me moment” in the second half of the film, but when Hackman doesn’t even show up for the first hour, you can’t legitimately believe it’s true. At this point, the film almost tries to switch into buddy action movie when it’s much better as just a techno-thriller. 

For 1998, the concept of a thriller where an average upper-middle-class lawyer suddenly gets thrust into a nasty chase with the government would definitely be an appealing one — it would be an easy character and situation to empathize with. But while team heals all, it definitely hurts some movies and particularly those with weak stories containing patchy subplots.

3/5 Stars

Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: David Marconi
Starring: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight


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