Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Memoriam: Tony Scott's Enemy of the State

The late Tony Scott was many things during his roller coaster career - a visually arresting pulpster, a slick studio action director, an experimental genre auteur, but as he began to re-invent his directing style near the end of the 1990's, he proved himself to be something else: surprisingly prescient.

In 1998, Will Smith was one of the hottest superstars on the planet, and after two audience-friendly sci-fi action films he made move of teaming with Tony Scott character-driven R-rated spy thriller. It was written at the dawning of the digital age, and predicts - with some seriously scary accuracy - the ubiquity and power of global surveillance technology and ease with which it could be abused.

I'm not being sensationalist at all (or at least not without reason) when I say that Enemy of the State predicted the Patriot Act.

This movie was drawing some serious attention during its production. Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson (who were also red-hot movie stars in the late 90's) were both front-runners for the part of naive labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean. Will Smith took the role because he'd enjoyed working with super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer (long-time collaborator with Scott) and was excited to work with Gene Hackman. Interestingly enough, Sean Connery was also considered for the role of Brill, making this the first of two times that Smith and Connery almost played opposite each other (they were originally offered Neo and Morpheus in The Matrix).

Framed with the familiar "Innocent man on the run" device, and drawing heavily from specific high points of that genre like The Fugitive, Enemy of the State follows Robert Dean after he unwittingly receives the tape of a Congressman's murder. This could be the plot of any number of John Grisham-style thrillers but for the clever utilization of computer and satellite surveillance technology as an all-powerful boogeyman employed by shadowy men for their questionable agendas. John Voight is the antagonistic NSA operative who dives into Dean's private life, desperate to destroy him before the tape is released to the public.

This is all instigated by a fictional bill - the Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act - that would give a broad reach to telephone taps, locational tracking, and bugging of private citizens in the name of preserving national security. This particular topic was already the subject of some debate during the decade, and indeed the questionable ethics of surveillance technology had been part of public discussion since the Nixon administration and the infamous Watergate scandal. Hollywood had mined this material before in films like Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, but there's an immediacy and accurately predictive quality to the way State employs modern-day tools. And the rhetoric that is used to defend this invasion of privacy is almost exactly the argument used to justify the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11.

The film walks a fine line between showing the awesome power behind unfettered access to worldwide communication and information, and falling back on using computers and satellites as techno-magic - as many tech-focused films of that decade (as well as the following decade) had done. Well, it mostly avoids techno-magic. The result is - apart from the form certain storage media take - a creepily canny "worst case scenario" of the kind of stuff that goes on RIGHT NOW.

Of course, this would make the film little more than a curious coincidence if it weren't also a good movie - and make no mistake, it's definitely a good movie. Enemy of the State plays out like a "last hurrah" for Scott's "reliable studio blockbuster" period, employing everything he'd learned in the dozen or so years since Top Gun and making brilliant use of its smart screenplay and its robust "old guard/new guard" cast.

I've touched on the three heavies - Will Smith, Gene Hackman, and John Voight - but they really do shine here. Smith works his trademark charisma and humor, but adds a rare edge. He begins the film with a great deal to lose, so when the black hats start taking his life away from him inch by inch, he becomes harrowed and desperate. Hackman's character Brill is actually absent from the story for nearly half the film, then makes up for lost time in about five minutes. The relationship between the two feels like an espionage cousin of the Agent K and Agent J, only played for keeps rather than chuckles. Voight himself goes understated in what could have easily been an incredibly laughable villain role, breezing through lines that - coming from a lesser actor - would be ridiculous to the point of self-parody.

Equally impressive is the supporting cast - not only does Regina King (The Cosby Show) turn up as Dean's wife Carla, one of Scott's better female characters, but the film boasts a "who's who" of late-90's nerd celebs. Jack Black and Seth Green show up as NSA techs, along with Jamie Kennedy. Even Jake Busey's in this as ex-military muscle along with Barry Pepper, and Tom Sizemore makes an appearance as a mob boss who ends up being more important to the movie than you'd think.

But perhaps the most interesting star of the film is Tony Scott himself. Much of the film is very restrained, at least by his later standards, but this film marks the beginnings of the hyper-fast cutting and visually assaulting editing style that characterized his later work. While most scenes play out in a fairly traditional manner (though still with Scott's trademark stylistic visuals including smoky interiors, dramatic lighting, and kinetic action), the opening of the film is a mash of surveillance and satellite footage that bombards the viewer, and this motif is used as a transitional device often, especially when the NSA black hats are zeroing in on Dean and Brill. The technique proves very effective in fostering the sense of paranoia that drives the film, assisted in no small part by some clever cues by Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams (a frequent collaborator of both brothers Scott who was also responsible for the stellar Kingdom of Heaven score). Scott would build on this and continue to reinvent his directorial style into the 00's, resulting in the visual fireworks display that defined movies like Domino and Man on Fire.

As a whole, Enemy of the State isn't the most complex or the most personal film that Tony Scott ever made, but holds up as a slick evolution of the type of film he first became famous for making, albeit much smarter. Looking back it stands as a dramatic high point of Smith's late 90's career as well as a confluence of singularly impressive talent. It's a damn shame that Scott is no longer alive to make films like this.

What Enemy of the State started visually, later films refined. On the penultimate installment of this series, I'll be doing something different - examining several films that are defined by the Tony Scott's most experimental phase of film-making. After that, we'll go back in time to the film that marked one of the most interesting collaborations in two film-makers' careers. The time when Tony Scott directed a film written by Quentin Tarantino.

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