Controlled CHAOS Will Smith and Gene Hackman power the Big Brother tale 'Enemy of the State,' a taut thriller with terrific bloodlines and a taste for fire.


Remember Harry Caul? He was the surveillance expert portrayed by Gene Hackman in "The Conversation," Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 masterpiece of suspense, paranoia and contemporary existential gloom.

It turns out that Harry didn't fade away, he just moved to Baltimore. At least that's what's cleverly suggested in "Enemy of the State," Tony Scott's high-octane movie that pays homage not only to "The Conversation" but to the venerable canon of paranoid political thrillers, from "Three Days of the Condor" to "All the President's Men."

Featuring two solid and sympathetic performances by Will Smith and Hackman, and orchestrated with great energy and flair by Scott, "Enemy of the State" falters only when it runs afoul of Hollywood's addiction to explosions and gunplay. Other than those brief sequences, this post-Cold War paean to paranoia takes its genre to new heights -- literally and figuratively.

"Enemy of the State" harks back to the 1970s even from its opening scene, when we see Jason Robards murdered in a Washington suburb. Robards plays a U.S. congressman who is being railroaded to pass legislation giving unprecedented wiretapping and video surveillance powers to the government (let's just call it the Tripp bill for now).

The murder doesn't involve labor lawyer Robert Dean (Smith), who has his own problems with a mobster trying to infiltrate a union he's representing. But through a series of coincidences, most of them involving a very storied bunch of Georgetown alums, Dean becomes involved soon enough.

Pursued by another ruthless capo -- National Security Agency official Tom Reynolds (Jon Voight) -- Dean seeks help from an investigator he has used for his legal work, a mysterious man named Brill (Hackman). At its most entertainingly preposterous, "Enemy of the State" has Dean buggier than the Chesapeake in high season, with his pants, pen, watch, pager, cell phone and shoes each implanted with a tiny device signaling to an enormous satellite that hovers in sinister silence above the Earth.

At its core, "Enemy of the State" is just an adrenalin rush for grown-ups, a slightly more thematically pointed take on the adult action recently seen in "Ronin." In other words, it's a little bit ridiculous, but it sells its escapism honestly. And, as with that film, most of its success is due to a consistently smart and capable cast. Smith is as appealing as ever as the everyman caught in a web of terrifying magnitude, and Hackman brings tough pathos to the man who is a shadow government unto himself.

Directed with nervy visuals and convulsive editing, "Enemy of the State" tautly presents the dark side of the Big Brother scenario presented by "The Truman Show," making a powerfully creepy case that the well-heeled forces of state capitalism not only have our number but will use it whenever we get out of line. "Let's get into his life," Reynolds says about Dean. "His parents, his urine samples, his porno rentals." And this guy isn't even a special prosecutor!

Even while it shamelessly pumps up the action -- the chase scenes are innumerable -- it injects a tonic amount of humor into the proceedings, thanks to Smith's sunny demeanor and numerous sight gags involving Dean's and Brill's pets.

"Enemy of the State" only gets out of hand toward the end, when explosions and a tired scene of gunplay appear in two scenes that couldn't be further from the film's more subtly admirable elements.

In a scene directly taken from "The Conversation," Scott puts Dean and an informant (Lisa Bonet) in Baltimore's Mount Vernon square, their conversation being taped by a daisy-chain of spooks. Later on, we see that Brill's Canton loft looks like an only slightly updated version of Harry Caul's Paris techno-aerie. As dignified, touching recollections of a great cinematic tradition, these scenes are homages in the truest sense of the word.

If it's true that amateurs borrow and professionals steal, then with "Enemy of the State," Scott proves a professional through and through.

'Enemy of the State'

Starring Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight

Directed by Tony Scott

Released by Touchstone

Rated R (language and violence)

Running time 128 minutes

Sun score ***

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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