Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Will Smith, Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy, Gabriel Byrne
Plot: When a lawyer (Smith) accidentally ends up with evidence connecting a corrupt NSA official (Voight) to the murder of a Congressman, he ends up with a security team hunting him down.
When it comes to the best action films of the 90s, I think you will find Enemy of the State the dark horse in the run. It is the kind of action film that questions what the genre is capable of. In the action film hall of fame, it is the brass, silly flicks that stick out in the memory. One cop take on a tower full of terrorists. A commando squad end up fighting an alien hunter in the jungle. James Bond saves the world again. However, Enemy of the State decides to go down another route. It keeps the fun parts of the genre, like the grand explosion, the mysterious men with suits and guns, the Tony Scott quick-edit directing… however, it doesn’t allow these elements to overthrow the plot. And the plot is what sets Enemy of the State apart from the crowd. It really is a clever movie, with a story to tell. It focuses on the debate that the government is becoming more controlling, in order to keep America safe. However, in knowing our every move, are they taking away our privacy, perhaps becoming the thing we need protecting from? It plays around with this debate, but takes the pleasure in throwing a gripping action conspiracy story on top of that. Innocent bystander, Will Smith, gets caught in a political battle that sees the system turn on him to cover up a story and is reduced to a helpless fugitive, running from an unstoppable enemy with his family at risk and his life in tatters. It really is a thrilling action, essentially the Jason Bourne film before Jason Bourne films were around, never sacrificing on smarts or action. The perfect blend of 90s film entertainment.
A great example of this would be Will Smith. Our image of the actor is usually a larger than life figure, cracking jokes and handling action with ease, as evidenced by his two biggest films of the era, Men in Black and Bad Boys. However, here, we see Tony Scott press back the actor’s charm and give us something more real. Don’t get me wrong, this is still the Will Smith we expect from our movies. He is a charismatic lawyer, loving husband and great muse for Tony Scott to tell his story with. Whenever he is on the screen, he is entertaining his audience, like an actor at the peak of his game. For example, there is a running joke with a blender that perhaps a less assured director would have felt nervous about including in his more realistic action movie, but Smith sells with confidence. However, there is something more believable about his performance that fits his usual stereotype around this more grounded kind of action. It feels like a comfortable balance between his over-the-top action flicks and his OSCAR-worthy movies, a stepping stone between the two that perhaps sees him give a far more natural performance than either of those two ends of the spectrum have gifted the actor. This is very important, because we wouldn’t necessarily be as scared for the character if Smith did play his usual bad-ass, unstoppable hero. The rest of the cast don’t get too much time to shine. As with most Tony Scott movies, the pace is far too fast to allow too much time for character development. Jon Voight comfortably plays yet another baddie. Several comedic actors, like Jack Black, Seth Green and Jamie Kennedy pop up, relishing the chance to play a villain rather than an idiot, but have little sway over the story. Gabriel Byrne has just over a minute’s worth of screen time. But that is all fine, because not one actor drops the ball and their presence builds towards the overall story. Of course, Gene Hackman is the man of the hour, the grumbling paranoid ex-agent who fought his way of the grid and knows how to play the system like the back of his hand. He turns up far later in the plot that one would think, but when he arrives, the actor elevates an already elevated movie.
Final Verdict: One of the greater action films of the 90s, giddy fun without the stupidity. More films could learn from this example.