With After Earth taking a plunge into less-than-mediocre territory since its opening a couple months back, Will Smith seemed there for awhile to be part of a conversation that I’m not used to him being included in. His judgment has been seriously questioned and criticized ever since getting his son on as the lead role in the most recent M. Night Disappointment. It’s weird to hear the bashing because if you consider his career of role choices, they’ve consistently been big, badass and mostly quite successful. He’s typecast as all hell, but he’s a fun typecast that usually elevates any given movie’s quality that he happens to be a part of. I haven’t seen After Earth myself, so I don’t know how good/bad young Jaden Smith’s limited acting chops were here. I am aware of how limited Big Will’s role was, however. The consensus seems to be that while at times the young actor fits into the moment, he’s simply not developed enough yet to carry a role this significant. Hence, some of the questioning: maybe, just maybe — did the Fresh Prince misjudge the situation?
It doesn’t matter. July has now turned into Will Smith month. Each throwback post will be about a classic Big Willie-style flick — we began with Independence Day.
Today’s food for thought: Enemy of the State.
Release: November 20, 1998
Will Smith exercises good judgment here by tempering his Bad Boys persona (which I’m imagining is far closer to his actual personality) in order to let his dramatic side come through in the form of Robert Clayton Dean, an attorney whose daily life quickly changes when he finds himself caught in a dangerous game between a ruthless mafia boss and the unexpected proponents of a government conspiracy theory.
Enemy of the State is violent, complex (for a film that is decidedly more action than it is drama) and intelligent blockbusters you’ll see with Will Smith’s name attached. He is but one piece of a large puzzle in this story about a government aiming to cut into the lives of the public with greater ease, an effort to inflate anti-terrorist sentiment. Director Tony Scott may occasionally dive into melodramatic territory here, but for most of the time, the drama and tension really keep the film afloat aside from the occasional lull in action. Even these moments are rich with sharp and poignant commentary. We get healthy doses of edgy jabs aimed at the government, about as much as we do get your typical action schtick. . . not to mention, a robust performance from Scott’s impressive ensemble cast.
Aside from Smith, we have the legendary Gene Hackman — here playing the ex-NSA agent Edward Lyle, a.k.a “Brill;” Jon Voight is once again not one to truffle with as the opprobrious Congressman Thomas Reynolds; his shady NSA correspondents include the likes of Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Jack Black and Seth Green; and we have Tom Sizemore playing the mobster boss Pintero who makes for a great adversary against not only Dean but the treacherous politician as well. The trio of Smith, Voight and Sizemore spearhead a cast that is performing at the top of its game — Jack Black and Seth Green also are surprisingly restrained in this film and are great to watch if ever we have forgotten that the two can take on serious roles for a change. (For Jack Black, see Bernie, also.)
When a tape that contains footage of the murder of a high-level government official falls into Dean’s bag one afternoon while he’s out shopping for a gift for his wife, members of the NSA invade Dean’s life with a swath of technological devices to gain intimate information about him. After losing most of his dearest assets, including the trust of his wife Carla and his job with the law firm, Dean recruits the help of Lyle. Initially opposed to the idea of coming out of retirement for Dean’s sake, Lyle decides to cooperate in making Dean a formidable enemy of his state — stripping him of the bugs and other tracking devices, then turning the NSA’s tactics against them and Congressman Reynolds. The pair’s effort to prove Dean’s innocence (and save his life) would also be a last-ditch effort to prove that the tape implicates both the Congressman and Pintero. While the final showdown occurs in a secluded mafia kitchen, the location is right across the street from an FBI secure location. As it turns out, Dean has adopted some of the craft and skill that Lyle used in his days as an NSA employee; he forms a plan that ends up ultimately leveling the playing field for good, allowing him and Lyle to walk away clean.
A lot of what makes this movie so compelling is the fast-paced tempo. And, okay, yes — the large doses of action/chase sequences on display. Largely though, these are second to the fact that Enemy of the State delves into a subject matter that is 1) disconcerting and 2) original. Watching our lead character being stripped of his basic civil liberties makes for an exciting albeit, disturbingly personal, experience. Though the film is an exaggeration, it is interesting to sit and contemplate how many traffic cameras there are on intersections; how many speed cameras; how many crooked businessmen are out there; how politically-motivated crimes can (and do) get covered up (and how many are). There’s relevance to this storyline, and some realities might be just as chilling as the events that unfold in the film.
Scott’s successful late-90s entry into the sizable action thriller genre is also quite the stylish one. Snappy, tight editing and color schemes contribute a genuine conspiratorial vibe to the picture. It features scenes where Fiedler (Black) and his cohorts are establishing ways to identify the missing videotape — there’s some great technological plugs here, insights into how organizations like NSA operate (even if these people are corrupt in the movie). The appeal of the metro D.C. area is rather dirty and grimy. The retreat back into Lyle’s warehouse when the pair are being hunted down by NSA agents is yet another dark, drab accent.
Fortunately for me, my life is nowhere near this active or high-profile, so I won’t have to be worrying about turning a corner and being instantly and brutally interrogated. Nor do I need to be concerned about tracking devices planted in the heels of my shoes, in my shirt pockets or in my fire detectors at home. But while I’m at it, I’m just going to check the T.V. to make sure I don’t see my face on any channel. . .
Recommendation: This is one of Will Smith’s greatest movies, and perhaps one of his finer performances as well. If you’re an adrenaline junkie like me, Enemy of the State is a classic. Unlike me, you should have it on DVD by now and have watched it quite a few times since.
Running Time: 132 mins.
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