Moviedrome Redux: ‘Enemy of the State’ (1998)

❉ Tony Scott’s high-octane mashup of The Conversation and The Parallax View is one of  the late director’s best films.

Political thrillers don’t get much more live-wire and jacked-up than the 1998 blockbuster Enemy of the State, a shiny, cool-blue, eerily prescient, and lightning-fast “man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time” movie which served as a critical and box-office comeback for Tony Scott after the drubbing he took for The Fan (I’ve always enjoyed that underrated thriller, flaws and all, and it recently debuted on Blu-ray as a German import).

Bruckheimer has always been one of the industry’s super-producers, a creative force who has taken his licks from critics but who has made an obscene amount of money from audience-pleasing pop-corn entertainments. Enemy of the State would rank as one of the more thoughtful entries from both Bruckheimer and Scott, and would cement the pair as a legendary team.

Mixing The Conversation with shades of The Parallax View and adding in a few terrific car and foot chases with some stylish shoot-outs, Enemy of the State was the fifth collaboration between Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and marked a more dramatically serious trend for the producer, with films immediately following including Remember the Titans, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbour, and Veronica Guerin. Bruckheimer has always been one of the industry’s super-producers, a creative force who has taken his licks from critics but who has made an obscene amount of money from audience-pleasing pop-corn entertainments. Enemy of the State would rank as one of the more thoughtful entries from both Bruckheimer and Scott, and would cement the pair as a legendary team.

Will Smith, fresh of the mega-success of Independence Day, was shrewdly cast as a hot-shot lawyer who inadvertently comes into possession of a video showing an evil U.S. Senator (Jon Voight, appropriately oily) masterminding a murder. Smith teams up with a bitter, hardened, and reluctant ex-CIA spook (Gene Hackman, terrific as always, and doing a riff on his immortal character from The Conversation), and goes head to head with the NSA in an effort to clear his name.

There are so many ideas at play in the busy narrative, and while there’s certainly lots of razzle-dazzle action (this is a Tony Scott picture!), the story took some darker turns into more ominous territory, with morally ambiguous questions being raised about privacy and the cost for national security. The pacing of Enemy of the State is unbelievably aggressive as images and plot points are hurled at the viewer from the first frame all the way until the last.

 Scott and Bruckheimer correctly predicted the Patriot Act with their imaginary The Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act, which is just downright mind-boggling in that Enemy of the State predates the 9/11 terrorist attacks by three years.

But what’s amazing about this maximalist approach to storytelling is that everything can be followed logically and coherently despite the frenetically stylish nature of the filmmaking style. Scott, working with ace cinematographer Daniel Mindel (a regular Scott collaborator who also shot the aesthetically groundbreaking Domino), put cameras in every corner of the room in Enemy of the State, mixing various film speeds and stocks with an overall high-contrast visual palette, resulting in a film that feels icy-hot to the touch.

The camera never stops moving, never slows down, and never gets tired; it’s energetic filmmaking to the max, especially when set to the propulsive rhythms of Harry Greggson-Williams’ pulsating musical score. Enemy of the State makes for a potent double bill with Scott’s undervalued Spy Game, which was released in the direct shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and feels even more grounded in reality over 15 years later.

By the time Enemy of the State reaches it’s thoroughly clever finale, in which Scott even cribs from himself (True Romance, anyone?), you can’t help but feel out of breath and exhilarated. The script from David Marconi and David Arata (with un-credited work by Henry Bean, Aaron Sorkin, and Tony Gilroy amongst others) deftly balances smarts with action and also has sharp dialogue, always a plus within the action genre. And the filmmakers correctly predicted the Patriot Act with their imaginary counter-terrorism legislation called The Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act, which is just down-right mind-boggling in that Enemy of the State predates the 9/11 terrorist attacks by three years.

With a ridiculously stacked supporting casting including Tom Sizemore, Jack Black, Gabriel Byrne, Jason Robards, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Loren Dean, Jake Busey, Barry Pepper, Seth Green, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Lee, Scott Caan, Jamie Kennedy, Lillo Brancato, Ivana Milicevic, and Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn(!), this film was yet another testament to Scott’s inherently awesome casting instincts, which followed him from movie to movie. Good God Damn do I miss this man’s work, and over the years, I’ve found myself repeatedly coming back to Enemy of the State. It’s one of Scott’s best motion pictures.


❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for MovieViral.com, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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