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'Enemy': A State of Disbelief

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 1998

  Movie Critic

Will Smith stars in "Enemy of the State." (Touchstone)

Tony Scott
Will Smith;
Gene Hackman;
Jon Voight;
Regina King;
Barry Pepper;
James LeGros;
Jason Lee;
Jason Robards;
Jamie Kennedy;
Scott Caan;
Gabriel Byrne;
Jake Busey;
Seth Green;
Loren Dean
Running Time:
2 hours, 12 minutes
Contains profanity, explosions, murder and skimpy lingerie
If the megaplex were a courthouse, and I were judge not movie critic, I might have to recuse myself from reviewing "Enemy of the State." This far-fetched thriller about domestic surveillance and conspiracy among the upper echelons of the National Security Agency comes from those masters of cinematic bombast, Jerry Bruckheimer and Tony Scott (the producer-director team who brought you "Top Gun" and "Days of Thunder").

As a native Washingtonian, I am already prejudiced against the on-screen defacement of my home town by movies that are set there, and consequently I am prone to pick, pick, pick at insignificant details that the filmmakers get wrong. Second, I have some modest familiarity with the NSA – I would tell you how, but then I'd have to kill you-so I am just as touchy about inaccurate Hollywood depictions of the super-secret spy agency.

Fortunately (or unfortunately for Touchstone Pictures), this is not a judicial proceeding, so my biases will stand. "Enemy of the State" is an enormously entertaining visit to planet paranoia, but its escapist pleasures titillate only in direct proportion to the degree of persecution complex that you bring into the theater with you. The story of an innocent man hunted by omniscient government goons is undermined by a plot so full of hooey as to make your head spin.

My mistake was bringing my head into the theater in the first place. Like a colicky baby, the brain wouldn't shut up, annoying to no end my other, baser faculties that were just there to enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is. When we first meet high-powered lawyer Robert Dean (Will Smith), he has a thriving labor law practice, a house in Georgetown, a lovely wife (Regina King), a cute kid (Jascha Washington) and a boring life – except he negotiates with violent mobsters for a living. One day Dean runs into Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee), an agitated old college buddy who secretly drops something into Dean's shopping bag just moments before dashing out into the street – where Zavitz is promptly run over by an ambulance.

It seems the unlucky fellow was being hounded by paramilitary thugs under the personal command of a shadowy man named Reynolds (a spookily malevolent Jon Voight), a megalomaniacal State Department officer on loan to the NSA. Reynolds is eager to retrieve the package that Dean has unwittingly come into possession of – a videotape showing that Uncle Sam will stop at nothing, even murder, to push a bill through Congress allowing the NSA to spy indiscriminately on American citizens. The next thing you know, Dean's credit cards don't work, he's framed for murder and he's running through traffic in underwear and a bathrobe as murderous G-men try to run him over.

The only person who might be able to save him is an elusive former agency operative known as Brill (Gene Hackman), who used to work as a legal investigator for Dean. Cool and funny and sexy, Hackman just keeps getting better with age, and his pairing with Smith is the best thing about the film.

Now, I know the plot written by David Marconi sounds complicated, but complexity is not "Enemy's" problem. Plausibility is.

Not only are we asked to believe that a team of heavily armed ex-Marine assassins and a couple of black helicopters would go unnoticed in broad daylight in Adams-Morgan, but that every security camera in every 7-Eleven and liquor store in America is connected to a master computer network back at Fort Meade run by a couple of renegade hacker-slackers with groovy sunglasses and antisocial tendencies who couldn't get security clearance to Disneyland in the real world.

Apparently, these are not the cheesy cameras whose grainy black-and-white images of bank robbers you see on "America's Most Wanted," but state-of-the-art surveillance equipment capable of duplicating the 360-degree "stereoscopic freeze" technique utilized in ads for Gap khakis and other TV commercials. To underscore the ubiquity of these prying eyes, Bruckheimer and Scott repeatedly show a spy satellite orbiting around the globe. Seeing it once gets the message across; whooshing across the screen every 15 minutes, it begins to annoy.

And never mind that the main characters jump back and forth between Baltimore and Washington as if the cities were as close as Foggy Bottom and Rosslyn. No one ever gets that stuff right.

Where "Enemy of the State" really stretches credulity – and patience – is in its arrogant assumption that just because Americans trust their government no further than they can throw it, they are willing to accept all manner of cinematic mummery about Big Brother and the end of privacy, including slick but specious movies that prey on our fear and mistrust.

Come to think of it, maybe that's not such a stretch after all.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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