Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel
ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998) ** 1/2

Directed by Tony Scott. Written by David Marconi. Photograph, Dan Mindel. Editing, Chris Lebenzon. Production design, Benjamin Fernandez. Music, Trevor Rabin & Harry Gregson-Williams. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Cast: Will Smith (Bobby Dean); Gene Hackman (Brill); Jon Voight (Reynolds); Lisa Bonet (Rachel Banks); Regina King (Carla Dean); Ian Hart (Bingham); Jake Busey (Krug); Barry Pepper (Pratt); Gabriel Byrne, Tom Sizemore, Jason Robards (the Congressman); Jason Lee (photographer Zavitz), et al. A Touchstone release. 128 minutes. R (violence)

On Friday the 13th my computer's display crashed terminally. On Friday the 20th, the computer was still disabled - so when, that day, I saw Enemy of the State, the contrast between my electronic reality and the film's flawless, dazzling magic made the movie both a techno-wonder and a techno-thriller.

Congressman Jason Robards intends to vote against a Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act.  Reynolds (John Voight), who is high up in the NSA (National Security Agency), unable to change the Congressman's mind, takes the easy way out. He has the man killed in a park, before his (Voight's) eyes.

By one of those coincidences that transform films into movies, the murder is recorded by a video camera hidden in the area by photographer Zavitz (Jason Lee) who was monitoring geese. When he examines the footage and alerts a magazine editor, his phone call is intercepted. The NSA apparently bugs and monitors every human on this planet.

Immediately a chase begins, and not a wild goose one. Reynolds army of computer-whizzes see and hear everything. Armed agents pursue the photographer. As he   flees, by an amazing coincidence he runs into his long time-no-see college classmate, labor lawyer Bobby Dean (Will Smith) who is shopping for lingerie in a shop a la Victoria's Secret with provocative Class 3 seductresses as saleswomen.

It's a blitz-meeting. The first thing Bobby does is -- improbably-- to give his visiting card to Zavitz, who, in turn, secretly slips into Bobby's purchases a diskette he has made of the incriminating video.

Zavitz dies. The God-like computers clue in the pursuers as to the diskette. Bobby becomes their prey. It's like the familiar Alfred Hithcock trick of The Wrong Man, except that unsuspecting Bobby does not realize that he is the Right Man. Get my drift?

The lawyer is spied upon and hunted down. Bugs are planted on his clothes, his shoes, a transmitter that duplicates his Mont Blanc pen, another that duplicates his watch, etc. NSA's stock most likely includes bugs in Viagra pills, toilet paper rolls, wedding rings, toenail clippers and all else.

Instant images and sounds show up on banks of monitors that also are hooked up to cars, taxis, trucks, helicopters and a dedicated satellite 155 miles up. Such astounding technology makes you a) suspend your disbelief;  b) suspend it some more; c) wonder why Saddam Hussein has not yet been terminated.

Actor Will Smith has declared: "You can be followed, watched, listened to wherever you go; there's nothing the Government can't do. And the technology we use in the movie is actually 10 years old. Fot this film, we went to the CIA. We saw a recorder that you can implant in one of your tooth fillings. We saw satellite surveillance of poppy fields. All the technology that we show in the film exists for real. The concept of privacy is obsolete."

Who am I not to believe him? I'll have to be cautious though next week, when I see Nick, my dentist. But then, if there's nothing the government can't do, why can't it govern?

Anyway, the NSA people or their equivalent either  must be furious or are laughing themselves sick. Can't guess.

If the computer screens are crystal clear, the plot is not. At the end Voight is revealed as a rogue super-spy, yet I can't decide whether his henchpeople are co-conspirators or believe that they are kosher patriots.

Early on, during a sequence of long-distance miking  it became obvious that the whole thing was derivative of Coppola's masterful The Conversation, but done here in silly ways bereft of humanity, filmed like an MTV montage and not involving the audience. So, who, later, pops up but Gene Hackman, the tortured anti-hero of The Conversation!

He turns the movie's techno-jokes into one big inside joke. Hackman, a techno-genius and former NSAer,  teams  up with Will for defense, counter-attack -- and a happy ending.

I have revealed almost nothing of the gimmickry and the twists. These are as numeorus as the bytes of your computer. At random, they include and involve quid pro quos; vengeful Mafiosi; the luscious Lisa Bonet as Will's college swetheart and now his informer; Will's wife, son and lapdog; Will as a human fly; Will without pants; Will puzzling (and amusing) an Oriental couple in their hotel room; a hotel fire; explosions; a mysterious can driver; a sort of humongous "French Connection"-ish (which starred Hackman) chase in a tunnel  and beneath it; split-second changes; and so on ad infinitum and ad absurdum.

"Non-stop" takes on a new meaning. So do "techno-over-skill  and overkill." Nonsense goes from mega to giga. Whatever truths are present, they are treated so lavishly that they make King Kong, Mothra, Spielberg's dinosaurs and James Bond feel real; by comparison the Enigma encryption machine of World War II and the amazing spy-gadgets and surveillance of STASI (the East German all-pervasive secret police) feel like advanced toys.

The realities behind Enemy of the State -- and I don't doubt that there are several --go so much overboard that the movie becomes a fantasy whose cautionary aspects are defanged.

As in the James Bond hyperboles, the silliness has a lining of humor which, along with the exaggerations, does help pass the time. Will Smith is very good. He performs with self-confidence, a twinkle in his eye, and no mugging for the lens. His type of humor and cool reminds me of Eddie Murphy's, minus the grin; or, going way back, of Clark Gable's, minus the smugness.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel