Robert Dean is a successful lawyer who bumps into a old friend on the run from a secret government agency. Unbeknownst to Dean, his friend plants vital evidence of a crime on him - before being hit by a truck. The Agency responsible for the crime then set out to catch Dean, cancelling all his cards and framing him for murder...
Tony Scott is a very seductive director. He presses all the right visual buttons. This man virtually patented the orange-filtered Simpson-Bruckheimer sky. To some, this makes him Ridley's flashy, shallow brother. But when Scott's camera happens upon a decent story and some really fine performers, as with Crimson Tide, the effect is like having your inside leg stroked in the dark for two hours. Enemy Of The State is like that.
It's a fairly well-trodden story of national insecurity that's been given a good optical seeing-to: a congressman (Jason Robards) is bumped off for refusing to back a privacy bill. His murder is caught on film by an ornithologist (Jason Lee), who is similarly "erased", but not before planting a copy of the evidence on attorney Robert Clayton Dean (Smith). The ultra-secret National Security Agency (nicknamed No Such Agency), which is behind all this, targets the innocent Dean: he's smeared, loses his job, and is booted out of his delightful home. In order to "get his life back", he enlists the help of a grizzled, former NSA man Brill (Hackman), but their every move is monitored by a crack squad of grunge nerds at VDUs.
Yes, it's the 1974 classic The Conversation taken to its logical conclusion (there's even a lengthy homage to Coppola's great opening scene which will either delight or annoy). Civil liberty is the issue du jour - not only is Big Brother watching us, he's keeping tabs on what we buy with our Sainsbury's Reward Card - so, unlike producer Jerry Bruckheimer's last biggie, Armageddon, which measured the personal impact of a global event, Enemy Of The State starts with a small event (one little murder) and works upwards and outwards.
Set in and around Washington DC over Christmas, it has plenty to offer visually (Scott's lens laps up the winter chill, the fairy lights and the large government buildings), and it is against this handsome backdrop that the action takes place. But this is an action film not measurable by octane levels. It's more like a never-ending chase, whose choppy, paranoid pace is effortlessly maintained using fast edits and multiple film stocks, and only once descends into gimmickry (Smith hanging off a hotel balcony in his underwear). Crucially to the film's non-macho tone, you can easily imagine the lead role being taken by Sandra Bullock: it's about minds ticking over, not guns blazing. (Not until the end anyway.)
David Marconi's script clunks a little in the establishing scenes, but once Jason Lee makes his discovery and declares, "Fuck a duck!", it relaxes no end. When the NSA supernerds utter that era-defining phrase, "Gentlemen, we are back on-line!", it's as if they are taking over the world, not just Washington. Great fun. And besides the always enthralling Hackman, an offbeat supporting cast (Lee, Ian Hart, Scream's Jamie Kennedy, Private Ryan's sharpshooter Barry Pepper) helps keep the film's cool when all around it blockbusters are losing theirs.
A truly substantial looker for the holidays, it's that rare Bruckheimer project in which style is matched by content.