johnlink ranks ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)

Most of my movie viewing is randomly drawn in the sense that I often don’t know what I plan to watch until a few minutes before starting it. With ENEMY OF THE STATE, however, there has been a prevalence of this film in the psyche of the news media since the NSA leak scandal by Edward Snowden. I figured it was time to revisit this movie, since I thought it was more of a standard 90s action flick: very high on entertainment, low on artistic or thematic value. It would be like someone comparing the Mexican drug wars to DESPERADO or a prison break to THE ROCK or Nicholas Cage’s career to TITANIC. I wanted to see if this movie really did have something to say 15 years later. So, you know, I watched it…


I watched ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998) on 7.7.13. It was probably my fifth viewing of the film and the first in six or seven years.

I have a hard time separating nostalgia from quality with this movie. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I don’t think this movie feels dated, save for the use of VHS for surveillance video and that awesome, rousing, and generic film score which seemed to permeate every 90s action flick. But the movie doesn’t feel like it is from a different time period the way some 90s movies do.

To be sure, some of that has to do with how topical the film is. Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) is a high-powered labor lawyer who is unwittingly given evidence of an assassination. The NSA uses its abundant power to shut down his life and try to chase him down to kill him. He represents the somewhat fantastical unicorn of the innocent American relentless hunted and killed by a limitless government agency. It’s fantasy, to be sure. But it is a hell of a fun one.

Doing the chasing is Reynolds (Jon Voight) who assembles a team to hunt him down filled with now-recognizable stars like Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy, Seth Green, Barry Pepper, Jake Busey, and Scott Caan. The pro-Dean team (some of who only pretend to be) are Regina King as his wife, Gabriel Byrne, Jason Lee, Lisa Bonet, and, of course Gene Hackman (more on his character in a minute). The entire movie is lined with stars, and it uses them exceedingly well. Byrne and Lee’s casting are particularly effective for what they are asked to be and do.

The movie, directed with solid focus by the late Tony Scott, really does drive in a high gear from the first scene. But this isn’t mindless high-octane stink. A major scene in the film revolves around the surveillance of Will Smith and Lisa Bonet. The scene has several shots which mimic exactly a scene in the landmark 1974 paranoia film THE CONVERSATION.

And that isn’t mere coincidence. While this has never been officially recognized, it is widely believed that  Hackman’s character in STATE is the same as his character in THE CONVERSATION, making the 1998 film an unofficial sequel. Scott at least nods in that direction with some of his shot choices, and costuming Hackman similarly to the previous film. Like any good conspiracy theory, this isn’t an easy one to prove. But this has more than a casual link.

I walk away from this viewing have a new-found respect for how timeless this turned out to be. I think it is a movie which plays amazingly well in the current conversation of privacy and what we are willing to give up to be protected. I like to think there are not as many Jon Voight’s out there as the movie would lead you to believe, but maybe I am just naive.





~ by johnlink00 on July 8, 2013.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)”

  1. Nice review John, I haven’t seen this for a while but I always liked it – definitely above average in terms of those star-studded 90s Bruckheimer films, and glad to hear it has stood the test of time. I was living in Washington DC when it was made and remember them filming – the chase scene with Jason Lee was a stone’s throw from my old office. Never put two and two together regarding Hackman in The Conversation so thanks for the insight!

    • Thanks! I appreciate it. I remember how big of a surprise it was when first seeing the movie that Jason Lee was dead. You just figured he was going to have a bigger role. By killing him, they made it a more important role.

      Also, I really need to go back and watch The Conversation again now. It’s been years since I’ve seen it and would love to check out just how closely it plays to this.

  2. […] ENEMY OF THE STATE […]

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