We gave it a B
Two dozen years after Francis Ford Coppola’s great privacy-violation nightmare “The Conversation,” Tony Scott (who most recently directed “The Fan”), working, as he did in “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide,” with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, has come up with a high-adrenaline, high-concept action thriller that mixes hot-button issues of privacy and surveillance, easy-to-identify good and bad guys, attention-getting stars, and well-choreographed chase scenes, then sexes up the works with an array of supercool hardware and software you’ll wish you were getting for your birthday. And if that sounds like a lot of stuff thrown on one screen, it is: Following standard Scott/Bruckheimer operating procedure, “Enemy of the State” is built for speed, then slowed by excess and glandular fever.
At heart, it’s an American success story about a man whose life is unlawfully invaded by rogue government operatives, who fights back, and who wins. Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a hard-charging Washington, D.C., labor lawyer with a spicy wife (“Jerry Maguire”‘s wonderful Regina King, once again playing nobody’s fool) and a cute son (Jascha Washington), knows nothing about the NSA-coordinated murder of a congressman (a surprise Grand Old Actor, offed before the opening credits roll). But a former college friend (“Chasing Amy”‘s Jason Lee), who accidentally caught the murder on tape, speeds by Dean while running from spooks in pursuit and drops the evidence into the attorney’s bag of Christmas gifts. Dean doesn’t know what he’s carrying, but the trackers do, and they proceed to hunt him down as (I hope) only movie-enhanced operatives can: ruthlessly canceling his credit cards, rifling through his bank statements and phone bills, and — most outrageous of all in movie morality — threatening his wife’s fluffy little dog.
Will Smith, with his attractive air of contented self-assurance, is a fresh choice for the victim, in a role not once played for laughs: Dean’s growing anxiety and fury as he begins to realize that he’s a deliberate, and not accidental, target, culminates in a nerve-fraying pursuit through a tunnel full of speeding traffic, where outrage spurs him to superhuman, I’ll-be-damned resourcefulness and running speed. But the smart lawyer still doesn’t get that with bugs planted in his pants, shoes, wristwatch, and a pen, he’s become a walking bull’seye. For that bit of insider info, he needs the help of the one-named Brill, played by Gene Hackman with no subtle nod to his starring role in “The Conversation.” Brill is a reformed pirate who split from the NSA after teaching them everything they know (“You won the war, now we’re fighting the peace,” his old colleague and current nemesis Reynolds tells him) — and who, therefore, lives in a bug-proof, survivalist’s bunker of his own design, ruing (and monitoring) the technological Pandora’s box he has opened.
He’s also — with all deference to Hackman’s gusto as an eccentric techno-hermit — absurd. And as it loops, doubles back, and spins to a blowout conclusion, “Enemy of the State” runs out of juice, out of RAM, out of any jargon you’d like to add to describe plot meltdown. Will Smith may have saved the world once again, but in the Scott/Bruckheimer Bill of Rights, blowing stuff up is fundamentally more important than the right to chat at home without having a listening device planted in the ceiling.