Tony Scott had a hell of a run as a filmmaker.
In light of his tragic and, frankly, downright shocking suicide, the media has mostly tied him to his work in the 80’s. News stories detailing the director’s grim end are littered with phrases like “Top Gun director” or “the man behind Beverly Hills Cop II”–descriptions that paint a portrait of a director past his prime, when, really, Tony Scott consistently churned out box office hits for 25 years.
After kicking off his movie career with the steamy vampire flick The Hunger, nearly everything Scott touched became a box office gold. In the first half of the 90’s alone, Scott put out Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance and Crimson Tide—all big hits (save for True Romance, which failed in the box office but has since built a healthy cult following thanks in no small part to Quentin Tarantino’s script), and all bear the unmistakable mark of Tony Scott.
Scott carved himself out a chunk of Hollywood and ran with it. Critics often derided him for his frantic editing, uninspired photography and his tendency towards stories that were, more often than not, just too ridiculous to be believed. But, like him or not, you have to admire the Scott’s peerless ability to spin a thrilling yarn. He also had a knack for attracting talent, as all of his movies drew out A-list: Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Will Smith—Scott used these actors at the top of their game, and many of them kept returning for more.
For many, Tony Scott is a guilty pleasure director. They’re taught, adult thrillers that toe the line back and forth between clever and silly and back again, but they almost always succeed in drawing you in. Choosing a favorite is a matter of personal vice. Sexy vampire Susan Sarandon? The Hunger. Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper trading dialogue back and forth? True Romance. Regean-era military fetishism? Top Gun.
For me, I favor paranoid conspiracy yarns, especially if they involve fancy do-dads that could never exist in the real world, which means Scott’s 1998 Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State is my Tony Scott movie of choice.
The cast in Enemy of the State is a feat of 90’s Hollywood magic, with Scott nabbing Smith after his first string of titanic hits (Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black), and then loading the rest of the cast with heavyweights, rising stars and familiar faces like Gene Hackman, Jon Voight, Jason Lee, Jack Black, Anna Gunn, Tom Sizemore, Seth Green, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Gabriel Byrne—the list goes on and on.
With a couple of tweaks to the script, Enemy of the State could have been a bonkers sequel to The Conversation, Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance-based conspiracy thriller that also starred Hackman. Hackman ostensibly plays the same role, albeit a talkier Bruckheimer version of the character, and the movies share many of the same concerns regarding breach of privacy, government overreach, conspiracy and helplessness. Whereas Coppola concentrated on mental and emotional strain such surveillance can take on a man, Scott fills time with a nearly endless stream of chase sequences. We’re talking chases through hotels, chases across rooftops, chases in the sewer, in the trainyard, in tunnels—if you can get chased through it, you see it happen in Enemy of the State.
The film is also loaded with one of my favorite Hollywood vices: loads of deliciously phony technology. Not only can these magical cameras “zoom and enhance” like in an episode of Law and Order, these NSA goons boast cameras that can film 360 degrees of a room, create computer composites of items off camera, ID faces, and provide real-time satellite feeds that put Google maps to blurry shame. It’s all pure movie-fakery used to give the baddies an over-whelming edge over the heroes, which allows Scott to continually crank up the tension—an essential part of what keeps Enemy of the State interesting over the course of its rather bloated running time.
The nature of the surveillance state presented here may be broad and out of touch with the limitations of technology, but the concerns of imminent government overreach in the name of “national security” presented in Enemy of the State feels prescient now. This was a Bush-era thriller made when our biggest political concern was a poorly laundered blue dress. The piece of legislation that greasy politico Jon Voight tries to slide through Congress in the film bears marked similarities to the Patriot Act—and what seemed like Hollywood hyperbole in 1998 essentially became reality only three years later.
Enemy of the State is far from a perfect picture, and it’s definitely not Scott’s best, but it’s a great showcase of the director’s strong suits, his eye for talent, his wit, and his knack for sneaking in big ideas while still making things go boom real good. Ron Howard put things best when he expressed grief at the loss of a fellow filmmaker: No more Tony Scott means no more Tony Scott movies. Sad news for anyone that’s a sucker for the thrill of the chase.