Netflix Recommendation: Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998)
After spending six paragraphs letting everyone know how distracting I think Tony Scott’s visual style is from the stories he is attempting to tell, here is a film where his style perfectly fits the story being told and actually helps create the sense of paranoia which is essential for the story’s success. While the end is a pretty simple cop-out, Scott effectively manages his reliable leads with a number of charming character actors– some of whom provide consistent comic relief– and keeps the tension high for over two hours. If the current action movies in the multiplex aren’t running on all cylinders (and aside from Star Trek, they’re not), Enemy of the State delivers all the thrills and laughs that you would possibly want from a summer flick.
Congressman Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) murders a fellow Congressman who is going to fight him regarding a bill that Reynolds wants to push through, expanding the surveillance abilities of the government. Unfortunately for Reynolds, a wildlife researcher (Jason Lee) was doing some surveillance of his own and got the murder on video. When the existence of this video is discovered, Reynolds sends a crew of NSA agents (played by Barry Pepper, Seth Green, Jack Black, Scott Caan, and Ian Hart) to find the video and kill the man who has it. Unfortunately again for Reynolds, before they catch up with him, he runs into Robert Dean (Will Smith) and passes the video off to him. That’s where the action starts– the NSA frames Dean for murder in an attempt to bring him to them. With the help of an underground fugitive named Brill (Gene Hackman), he sets off trying to expose Reynolds as a murderer while proving his innocence and avoiding joining the increasing list of murdered people.
Will Smith is his usual charming earnest self, a terrific lead actor for a Hitchcockian thriller like this. Gene Hackman oozes cool every second he’s on the screen– few 70-year-old actors could pull off the badass underground technologically-savvy Brill. I feel particular fondness for Reynolds’ toadies, the NSA agents, who provide the most original twist in the film: funny, nerdy, likable villains who make you laugh while also emitting a certain sense of menace. The script by David Marconi (who also wrote the terrific government-surveillance thriller Live Free or Die Hard) is tightly knit, but Tony Scott keeps it all moving forward at a fast if not frantic pace. His usual quick edits, fast forwards, spinning cameras, etc., work here, as the camera bounces up to a satellite and back to Robert Dean’s location. It enables us to keep an eye on all of the characters the same way that the satellites are constantly keeping an eye on everyone as well. The end is too tidy– it’s the usual Tony Scott shootout where certain characters conveniently die in order to wrap everything up neatly. However, it’s easily better than every film he’s made since and it’s more satisfying than most thrillers of the past eleven years. In a post-9/11 world, this film plays even more realistically and holds even more tension than it did at the time.