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The Eyes Have It

ENEMY OF THE STATE
Directed by Tony Scott

Is Tony Scott an unrepentant hack or a mad genius? For years a willing cog in the Simpson/Bruckheimer machine, Scott's reputation rested on his ability to bring the superficial gloss and pace of advertising (where he and brother Ridley began their careers) to slick, witless blockbusters such as Top Gun, Days of Thunder and Beverly Hills Cop II. (His debut feature, the artsy erotic vampire film The Hunger, was a little-seen anomaly.) With 1994's Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance, Scott turned the tables on the Hollywood conventions of even his own movies, suggesting for the first time that a sense of humor might be lurking behind his self-conscious music-video style. Though his subsequent films (Crimson Tide and the incoherent The Fan) were slightly more orthodox in approach, Scott's cynicism has begun to slip through the cracks, revealing traces of a directorial personality that remained consistently anonymous throughout the 1980s.

Enemy of the State, Scott's latest film (and his fifth for producer Jerry Bruckheimer), is a paranoid thriller about privacy, electronic surveillance and conspiracy, with heavy emphasis on the electronic toys and tools of the trade used by the National Security Agency, a government spying operation with an almost unlimited ability to tap into phone lines, pull up bank and telephone records and, using spy satellites and video cameras, photograph and identify any person anywhere in America within seconds. (I thought there was a strong science-fiction streak in the film's depiction of the NSA's activities and hardware, but the film's publicity materials insist that they are not only realistic but actually about 15 years out of date.) Though the script paints the slacker operatives of the agency as a threat to privacy (and adds a murder plot and a ruthless bureaucrat played by Jon Voight to underline their point), Scott nonetheless treats them with a certain admiration, marveling at their professionalism, their ingenuity and even their capacity to commit mischief: They're the last word in voyeurism, and the director can't conceal his identification with their behavior.

To a large degree, Enemy of the State is a two-hour-long chase with occasional action sequences. The exceedingly likable Will Smith plays a Baltimore lawyer, Robert Clayton Dean, who comes under the long camera-eye of the law when an acquaintance slips a computer disk into his bag while he's out Christmas shopping. By the time he finds out who's after him and what they want (it's one of the curious features of the film, and part of Scott's strategy of running counter to the usual action-movie heroics, that the audience is usually about three steps ahead of the hero), his home has been burglarized; he's lost his job, his credit and most of his clothes; his picture is in the newspapers; and his wife is about to leave him because of an earlier infidelity brought back to the fore -- all courtesy of the government's information gatherers.

Scott guides Smith through the action scenes and shows the scope of the NSA in great detail -- perhaps even a little too much (it's one of the weaknesses of the paranoid thriller that once it's been established that the conspiracy can do just about anything, nothing they do comes as much as a surprise) -- but almost perversely underplays the usual action-movie menu of violence and pyrotechnics: The filmmakers even blow up a real building -- already a genre cliche -- and Scott treats it as little more than a detail in the background.

When Dean finally finds an ally in Brill (Gene Hackman), a grumpy former NSA agent, Scott finally reveals what attracted him to Enemy of the State: a chance to make a sequel/remake of Francis Coppola's 1974 drama The Conversation, the film in which Hackman played a professional surveillance expert torn by guilt over his profession. As if realizing that the action elements could fall into place without much guidance, Scott amuses himself by making Coppola's earlier character the film's voice of reason and the mouthpiece for most of its expository details. Those familiar with Coppola's film will recognize Hackman's loft headquarters, a re-creation of the famous opening sequence and even a photo from the earlier film in Hackman's NSA file. (He's not the only character from an earlier film to make an appearance: Gabriel Byrne turns up briefly driving a cab, the spitting image of Travis Bickle, and a climactic standoff between Voight, Smith and a Mafia boss turns into an operatic bloodbath in the spirit of John Woo or Tarantino.)

Scott isn't trying to make a film with the psychological depth of Coppola's; he's making a high-tech, highly commercial thriller, but he's earned the freedom to have a little fun with the conventions as long as he delivers the goods. Enemy of the State is a competent, entertaining film with plenty of twists and good performances, not only from the principals but also from Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Regina King and most of the supporting cast. What separates it from the typically anonymous Bruckheimer action fodder -- Bad Boys or Con Air, for example -- is an authentic directorial personality slipping in. He doesn't feel superior to the material, but he can't quite take it seriously. Scott may never make a truly great film (True Romance is probably as close as he'll get), but he can't go back to the flavorless hackwork of Top Gun, either.

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