Review: Enemy of the State (1998)

Will Smith and Gene Hackman star in political thriller Enemy of the State, a film directed by Tony Scott

Enemy of the State is one of the late Tony Scott’s best films, and this action-packed conspiracy thriller certainly showcases his best attributes; fast-paced action sequences, quick editing and tense showdowns, blanketed by a dramatic score. It also confirmed Will Smith’s box office draw, proving he can pull off roles beyond that of a cocky show-off.

Here Will Smith plays Robert Clayton Dean, a lawyer and loving husband and father who gets caught up with corrupt federal agents. It happens by chance after an old school friend, who he hasn’t seen in years, bumps into him and drops video footage of some NSA agents killing a US senator against a new surveillance law. This all leads to a chase headed by rogue politician Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) with Dean trying to clear his name with the help of a veteran former agent, Brill (Gene Hackman), as the Feds take any measures necessary to get back that evidence.

In the same vein as True Romance, this features a whole host of familiar faces and cameos; Gabriel Byrne, Jack Black, Seth Green and Tom Sizemore to name but a few, and Jason Lee pops up as the old school friend who starts Dean’s involvement. Just spotting where you know some of the actors from can be enjoyable in itself.

Even so, this is Will Smith’s film and, in an unusually restrained dramatic role, this is also one of his first blockbusters to show he’s not just a star, but that he can act, standing toe-to-toe with veteran Gene Hackman. The chemistry between them adds to the intensity of the paranoia – the wise, seen-it-all-before, loner (along with his cat, no less) butting heads but eventually working together with the logical-thinking middle-class family man.

As well as the cast and the acting being of a high standard, the conventional political plot has an interesting spin too, as this is one of the first films to feature hi-tech satellite surveillance technology as an integral part. Some of it may not be 100% accurate, but you get the feeling that the way Scott presents the information, nobody really questions if this advance technology is real or not (even back in 1998) – it is the US government after all.

However, alongside this the film does raise the issue of privacy and a government ‘big brother’ state, but any message is pretty much skirted around in place of the action. To be honest, you really forget there could be any sort of social commentary because Scott knows how to keep the film going at such a high-tempo for the audience not to really notice.

All this combined ensures a great action flick that starts off intriguingly and almost never lets up. Inevitably, only so much can be done with one guy being pursued, so it does begin to wane at the start of the third act. However, the Mexican standoff (akin to that of True Romance again) ends the film with a bang.

This may not be as cheesy or entertaining as Top Gun, serious as Crimson Tide, or character-focused as Man on Fire, but it is a slick, enjoyable movie because, not for the only time in his career, Scott balanced the action, plot and pacing to near-perfection for a mainstream film. It will never be remembered as the best film of his, or Will Smith, or Gene Hackman, but you can guarantee it is always hovering up there.

Best scene: Brill arguing with Robert Clayton Dean on a rooftop of a hotel about why bad things are starting to happen to him. As well as it being a well-made scene with the score and the spinning camerawork, you realise at this point that this is Will Smith, the actor, as he holds his own against Hackman.

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