ENEMY OF THE STATE

R

-By David Luty


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Despite a bit of evidence to the contrary, Enemy of the State aspires to be nothing more than a serviceably entertaining suspense thriller, which would have been more than good enough. There is much talk of the evils of government surveillance and its threat to personal privacy, but it is lip service only. In action, this is a movie in love with the subject matter of technological surveillance, not for any of its dramatic or philosophical possibilities, but as an excuse for hyperactive visuals aimed at upping the excitement quotient. It doesn't work, the flash fizzles in its tiresome relentlessness, but if we didn't know any better, we could at least assume that the filmmakers had a dramatic purpose in mind for cutting like crazy between our innocent everyman protagonist Robert Dean (Will Smith) and the seemingly endless band of tech-weenies tracking his every move. You could say the strobe-speed editing is a motif that illustrates the 'they are everywhere' aura that emanates from a contemporary big-brother situation.

Well, the problem is, we do know better. Enemy of the State was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the auteur of high-gloss, hyperactively eager-to-please pyrotechnics. The auteur theory is usually reserved for directors, but take a look at a series of Jerry Bruckheimer movies, with their consistent fog-filtered, cool-colored look (blues and greys mostly), the gung-ho music, and the unmotivated, pointless usage of moody darkness, and you start to realize that people like Michael Bay, Simon West and, in this case, Tony Scott, are nothing more than hired hands, endlessly interchangeable within the Bruckheimer school of attack.

Because Bruckheimer is so convulsively eager to please, and because the only way he seems to know how to please is to give his films a ridiculously earnest tone no matter how ridiculous the subject matter (which is why he wouldn't know what to make of producing the Tony Scott-directed True Romance), the Bruckheimer philosophy is particularly vulnerable to bad writing. And bad writing is what he's gotten in David Marconi's script. Enemy of the State begins with its main character having the type of bad day that only happens in bad movies. Lawyer Robert Dean tries to help a client by blackmailing a mobster, giving that mobster a sneak preview of a surveillance videotape that incriminates him. The violent mobster doesn't like being threatened, so he threatens to kill Robert when Robert refuses to tell him who gave him the tape. Since there wouldn't be much of a movie if the main character were killed in the first couple of scenes, the mobster inexplicably decides to give Robert a whole week to spill it. That's bad enough, but on his way home, Robert stops to do some Christmas shopping for his wife at a lingerie store. A man running for his life with his own sensitive videotape in hand, this one showing members of a powerful rogue government association committing a crime, bursts into the store and bumps into Robert, slipping the tape into Robert's bag. But since Robert recognizes this guy as a former college classmate, he makes sure to give the guy his business card before he lets him run along. This way, after the guy is flattened in traffic seconds after fleeing the lingerie store, the bad guys can get the name and address of their next target.

Thus is the clunky beginning of a standard issue cat-and-mouse plot, sustained for an overly long, momentum-less first half by Robert's failure to check for the tape in a fairly obvious spot. Once the writer allows Robert to know what he's fighting against (which we're allowed to know from the get-go in redundant and meaningless detail), as Robert gets to fight back by joining forces with a reclusive and paranoid surveillance expert named Brill (Gene Hackman, doing a watered-down-to-nothing version of The Conversation's Harry Caul), the story picks up a little speed. But be careful what you wish for; speed is a bad word to use around a Bruckheimer discussion. Along with the mild increase in story energy provided by the foolproof charisma of actors like Smith (whose charisma, while still in supply, is significantly dampened by all the flash) and Hackman (who, despite having his name above the title, has a cameo-and-a-half's worth of screen time), are the explosions, and the shootouts, and the chase scenes (some of which are effectively staged, some not). And throughout it all is the busy intercutting with the endless number of techies and agents tracking Robert's movements. These sidekick villains, underlings to Jon Voight's flavorless chief villain, are played by a group of too many familiar, talented faces given nothing to distinguish one from the other, and nothing to do but spurt out incomprehensible tech-talk and the rare cocky wisecrack. It seems as if it's all supposed to be incomprehensible, to pummel the audience into submission so they don't take too much time to consider pesky things like logic. But that's where Bruckheimer always gets it wrong, forgetting that a lucid, logical progression of events can be far more suspenseful and fun than his bludgeoning attacks. When a movie's trailer is more entertaining than the movie, due to its increased lucidity and more relaxed pace, that should be enough to tip off any filmmaker that he's on the wrong track.

--David Luty


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