As it turns 25, we take a look back at the underrated Tony Scott espionage thriller Enemy of the State…
It’s the year 1998 and everybody loves Will Smith. The guy can do no wrong, from coming fresh off the back of an iconic and much-loved TV show to an almost instantaneous leap into blockbuster cinema which saw him become one of the most bankable stars around. In the late 90s, going into the beginning of the new century, a good old conspiracy thriller still seemed like a fruitful exercise with megastars like Harrison Ford (notably as Jack Ryan) to Tom Cruise all dipping their toes into the murky waters at some point throughout the decade.
Since then, Will Smith has had some notable controversies and turned into a meme goldmine. The internet’s King of Cucks has probably seen his legacy take a hammering, but even prior to Slap Gate, one box office smash from 1998 seemed to be a hazy millennial memory… How come Enemy of the State isn’t more well regarded?
The film triggered a new wave in Tony Scott’s career as he sought a new trend-setting style which differed from the slightly John Woo-inspired theatrics seen in Beverly Hills Cop 2 and True Romance. Enemy of the State felt like the start of a stylistic period that gradually dialled up to the avid fart excess of Man on Fire, before being honed back slightly with his last few high-concept thrillers such as Deja Vu and Unstoppable. Although Scott would never top the overall brilliance of True Romance, he certainly produced some bangers in that final 12-year stretch, not least Enemy of the State.
The film has the classic Hitchcockian set-up, not unlike North by Northwest, when an average family man and lawyer accidentally takes hold of video evidence relating to the death of a congressman and is targeted by rogue agents and the CIA once he’s been framed for murder. On the run, entangled in a conspiracy and in over his head against government hitmen with all the mod-con tech of 1998 (some of what is created here being ahead of its time), Robert Dean (Will Smith) gets help from a rogue former agent in hiding (Gene Hackman). It’s a tense thrill ride that slaps up the gears pretty quickly and continues to escalate Dean’s mounting problems.
Scott paces everything brilliantly and produces an atypically slick film, with voyeuristic long lens camera work, nicely mixed with CCTV and satellite shots. As you might expect from a combo of Bruckheimer and Tony Scott, this one has plenty of spectacle but always tries to stay more grounded in comparison to the chaotic films of the era like The Rock and Con Air which were more action-centric. Much of the action here relies on the notion of a man trying to evade detection from limitless CCTV, satellite tracking, sniper scopes and agents on his tail. It’s largely down to his nous and sheer luck to remain on the lam, as well as the help from his ageing accomplice.
Enemy of the State feels very much of its time but not in a sense of feeling particularly dated aside from some of the consumer tech on display. It feels like a time when blockbusters had more variety to pick from. Bruckheimer was a hit merchant who did things big and it could be everything from disaster films to sci-fi, to buddy cop films to spy thrillers. Perhaps a reason why Enemy of the State hasn’t accumulated as many new viewers as it probably deserves is because we’ve just come to the end (seemingly) of the superhero era. It may be that now we could see more tentpole-level movies dive into all the conspiracies that AI and/or other state-of-the-art tech will inherently attract.
Likewise, Smith’s star power could hit a nostalgic rebound once the dust settles on slapping the hell out of Chris Rock and the fallout from perpetual public humiliation from the lovely Jada. Audiences who never experienced the Smith pomp era may discover the likes of Enemy of the State and Wild Wild West (tumbleweed…no?).
As for Smith, his rising star power and charisma at the time were undeniable. He captured the perfect blend of everyman and superstar here, that you needed for a Bruckheimer thriller. He’s also given great support by a stellar supporting cast headed up by Gene Hackman, along with Lisa Bonet, Jack Black, Barry Pepper, Jon Voight, Regina King, Seth Green and the late Tom Sizemore.
One of the more interesting facets of Enemy of the State is how prescient it feels in today’s world, perhaps even more so than in 1998. Some of the high-tech wizardry on display, as a team of spooks set out to systematically destroy Dean’s life seems to have gone from feeling far-fetched to decidedly more plausible. The 3D long-range scanning used to delve into the placement of a tape recorder dunked into Dean’s shopping bag felt ridiculous in 1998 but is highly likely today (perhaps even more refined and with greater functions).
Of course, the tin foil hat brigade might also look at how ruthlessly a government agency could wreck a man’s reputation at the mere thought he poses a threat to them. To the staunch defender of [insert any ‘cancelled’ celeb with a legion of cult worshippers], they might watch a film like Enemy of the State and submit it as evidence to the defence. Regardless, in a first world where everyone is tracked by their cell phone, hooked into a financial system increasingly moving to digital currency, where a single tweet could destroy a reputation and AI can deepfake anything you want, Scott’s film is now running more parallel to the real world.
As part of the Disney+ algorithm now, Enemy of the State will undoubtedly harvest some more viewers and hopefully be appreciated as the pulse-pounding thriller it is, just whether or not you buy into the scenarios and the backdrop of corruption, cover-ups and conspiracies is another matter. Built on some very grounded thrills with some great practical stunt work, it’s also far more engrossing than most modern blockbusters.
What do you think of Enemy of the State? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth or hit me up @jolliffeproductions…