Forget about Santa Claus coming to town. The National Security Agency is already here, and it not only knows whether you've been bad or good, it can deliver some pretty nasty surprises if you get caught on its downside.
That, at least, is the message of "Enemy of the State," the Tony Scott-directed, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced thriller about a man on the run from a super-powerful government agency. It's a paranoid's nightmare brought energetically to life, a solid and satisfying commercial venture with more than enough pizazz to overcome occasional lapses in moment-to-moment plausibility.
To do that a film has to have convincing performers, and this one demonstrates why Will Smith is pretty much the hottest actor in Hollywood. As Robert Clayton Dean, the man unjustly placed at the top of the NSA's bad list, Smith adds dramatic skills to his comic gifts and his immense relaxed likability and ends up as everyone's favorite Everyman, in a jam but determined to get out alive.
Just as good are the two actors who control Dean's fate. A convincing Jon Voight plays NSA zealot Thomas Brian Reynolds, the devil in a Brooks Brothers suit, and Gene Hackman helps make this film "The Conversation" on steroids with a tough turn as a rogue surveillance wizard.
More than that, casting director Victoria Thomas has dotted "Enemy of the State" with excellent performers in smaller supporting roles, people like James Le Gros, Ian Hart, Gabriel Byrne, Tom Sizemore, Jason Robards and Lisa Bonet who make this probably the best-cast of Bruckheimer's efforts.
A man who didn't become the king of popcorn movies by worrying too much about real world credibility, Bruckheimer has broken with form by commissioning a straight-ahead, non-tongue-in-cheek script that has a disturbing core. As written by David Marconi, "Enemy of the State" is if anything more convincing in its broad outlines than its thriller specifics as it posits the existence of a surveillance-dominated society, where the collaboration of the government and the telecommunications industry makes the most complete invasions of privacy possible.
Director Scott has done some of his best work ("Crimson Tide," "Beverly Hills Cop II") for Bruckheimer, and, collaborating with cinematographer Dan Mindel, he does a compelling job of visualizing how satellites and computers could make this Truman-Show-for-real scenario actually happen. Practically an elder statesman compared to the technobrats Bruckheimer usually employs, Scott also pays attention to the acting and it pays off.
Smith's Dean is introduced as one of Washington's top labor lawyers, a suspenders-wearing Georgetown resident with the requisite strong-minded wife (Regina King) who has a great way with suspicious looks) and an adorable son.
Dean's current case involves a mobster (Sizemore) who's trying to muscle in on a labor union. As always when things get tough, Dean uses his old law school girlfriend Rachel Banks (Bonet) to make contact with a secretive private investigator named Brill, who is capable of gathering the most hard-to-find information.
Simultaneous with this plot strand, bad guy Reynolds is getting a bead on a scientist named Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee), who has possession of a tape the NSA official will do anything to keep from becoming public.
Though he's not aware of it happening, that tape ends up in Dean's possession. What the lawyer does become aware of is his life turning into a nightmare overnight, as Reynolds, the man who invented ruthless, conspires for his own nefarious reasons to ruin every aspect of Dean's life from his marriage to his credit cards to his career.
It's a measure of how audience-friendly an actor Smith is that he manages to keep viewers interested through the toughest part of movies like this--the long section when the audience knows exactly what's happening but the protagonist is without so much as a clue.
Helping to clue Dean in is Hackman's character, a convincingly angry and suspicious security expert who seems uncannily like what the actor's Harry Caul persona in "The Conversation" would be like more than 20 hard years down the road. (As a pleasant nod to that earlier film, a shot of Hackman as Caul is flashed briefly on screen as part of Brill's out-of-date identity badge.)
People in "Enemy of the State" do a great deal of running around, with Dean for one getting briskly chased along hotel corridors, out windows and even down long tunnels wearing nothing but his underwear and a stolen bathrobe. All this activity serves to divert us from the film's periodic departures from plausibility. But with the whole world stacked against Smith's likable character, it seems only sporting to give his film that kind of a break.
* MPAA rating: R, for language and violence. Times guidelines: a variety of murders.
'Enemy of the State'
Will Smith: Robert Clayton Dean
Gene Hackman: Brill
Jon Voight: Reynolds
Lisa Bonet: Rachel Banks
Regina King: Carla Dean
Loren Dean: Hicks
Jake Busey: Krug
Barry Pepper: Pratt
A Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer production in association with Scott Free Productions, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Tony Scott. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers Chad Oman, James W. Skotchdopole. Screenplay David Marconi. Cinematographer Dan Mindel. Editor Chris Lebenzon. Costumes Marlene Stewart. Music Trevor Rabin, Harry Gregson-Williams. Production design Benjamin Fernandez. Art directors James J. Murakami, Jennifer A. Davis, Donald B. Woodruff. Set decorator Garrett Lewis. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
In general release throughout Southern California.