Looking back at Tony Scott’s Enemy Of The State

A 90s hit for Will Smith and the late director Tony Scott, Enemy Of The State's still an entertaining ride, Nick writes...

Oh Enemy Of The State. Released at the tail end of the 90s, it already seemed an out-of-date high-concept action film so beloved of that decade, and time hasn’t been kind to it.

Laugh at the high tech equipment used by the National Security Agency (videotapes) and their undercover spy methods at capturing Will Smith (driving muscle cars the wrong way down a traffic-filled tunnel). Cringe at the subtle and not-so-subtle racial slurs spread throughout the script (numerous references to Smith’s lawyer character being an ‘eggplant’, and a bunch of other racial insults), and finally, enjoy the utter crap out of the sheer ludicrous spectacle of it all. Yep that’s right, I said enjoy. Because while it might not be the shining star of Tony Scott’s film career, Enemy Of The State’s definitely one of the most entertaining.

Dreamt up by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson in 1991, Enemy Of The State follows the exploits of naughty NSA director Thomas Reynolds (played by professional scene chewer Jon Voight), who, angry that he can’t blackmail a congressman into supporting a law giving the NSA greater snooping powers, decides to kill him instead and make it look like a heart attack. 

What he didn’t count on was nature enthusiast Jason Lee accidentally recording it from his bird filming hide, realising what he had, then go on the run when he realises the rogue NSA men realise he’s realised and slip the evidence disk (an actual floppy disk. Ha! The 90s was so backwards) into Will Smith’s bag before getting killed by a fire truck.

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Cue Will Smith getting his life ruined and forced on the run by the evil NSA. Believe it or not, this is actually the sensible first half an hour of the film where it plays out like a political thriller with added chases. After this, Tony Scott obviously just thinks ‘balls to it’ and lets the film go bat-shit insane, which is what makes it great.

Dispensing with any notion of reality, Scott just invents technology for the NSA to find out what Will Smith knows. Need to see in his bag what was hidden from a shop camera? That’s alright, Jack Black (oh yeah, I forgot to tell you: he’s in this too) can magically rotate the camera 180 degrees to show you by giving a voice command to a computer.

They also really don’t give a shit about shooting up the place when chasing down targets, or zooming in helicopters wherever they want in downtown Baltimore, which is probably why in real life the NSA aren’t allowed to run these sorts of field jobs. It doesn’t stop with the NSA either, as Smith becomes some sort of superman once he knows his life is in danger – he’s able to shoot guns with accuracy from moving vehicles, outrun pursuing cars while on foot, and best of all evade NSA agents by locking himself into a tiny cupboard and setting it on fire (in order to create a public scene and get rescued by the emergency services I think), somehow surviving the cleaning-fluid-enhanced blaze raging within feet of him by wrapping himself in a blanket. 

I defy you to name any other director who could take the above and make it work, and make it half as entertaining. Tony Scott could, and did. Knowing that taking an overly complicated set-up and adding insane action beats to it would only go so far, Scott stuffed his film full of incredible acting talent. Fresh off Independence Day, Will Smith was now a bona-fide mega-star, and this is him at his charming best, making an unlikeable selfish lawyer a believable hero.

Voight is as dependable as ever as the nefarious baddie, and his black ops team is made up of Barry Pepper, Ian Hart, Jake Busey, Jack Black, Seth Green, Scott Caan and Gabriel Byrne. That’s just greedy! Even Tom Sizemore pops up in an uncredited role as a mobster. All of this and I haven’t even mentioned the film’s main draw: the mighty Gene Hackman as an embittered ex-NSA agent hiding out until he’s forced to help Will Smith. Hackman is great, and it’s a mark of a better time in film history when you see his name proudly given second billing.

Convinced by Scott to do the film, Hackman lends Enemy Of The State far more substance. Smith offered to do his part at a vastly reduced rate in order to work with the great man, and anytime the pair of them share screen time the film goes up another level (even if it’s lurching from one nonsensical plot point to another – ‘whaddya mean our plan to escape the NSA has to rely on some guy looking out his window at the right time? Oh well, sounds good to me!’). 

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Hackman’s role, however, poses an intriguing question. While the plot of the film is loosely based on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, in turn based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, some have gone further and suggested that Enemy Of The State is in fact a quasi-sequel to The Conversation, and that Gene Hackman is once again playing Harry Caul, but under a different name. The evidence is pretty slim, but nonetheless fun to include – the photo in the NSA file of Hackman they bring up in Enemy Of The State is the same one from The Conversation.

Hackman even wears Harry Caul’s famous transparent raincoat in the later film, and still keeps a workplace in an industrial location, which he once again has to blow up to avoid detection. While probably nothing more than a homage to The Conversation, I quite like the fact that Tony Scott and Jerry Bruckheimer possibly teamed up to make a action epic sequel to one of New Hollywood’s landmark films. 

While full of Scott’s trademarks – the hyper-kinetic editing, the over-the-top camera angles, insane plotting – Enemy Of The State also finds the master of modern action in a more reflective mood. While not quite nailing the 70s political conspiracy vibe he was going for, Scott once again showed that he was always concerned with substance as much as style. Enemy Of The State might have horribly outdated technology in a film about technology, but its themes of government intrusion and defending civil liberties became almost prophetic in the post-9/11 world of Homeland Security and various bills aimed at restricting the Internet (SOPA being one).

Tony Scott may have invented, codified, and then reinvented much of film language and form we now take for granted in our blockbusters and action movies, but unlike his peers and followers, he never forgot to make that only part of the film. Enemy Of The State may be a mediocre day at the office for him, but a mediocre day for Scott is better than 90 per  cent of most other directors’ output, and resulted in something enjoyably daft and entertaining. Which I proudly saw twice in the cinema.