State of the Union Address and Film Review Classic: Tony Scott’s Finest Hour
State of the Union Address
For a solid month, the HFP website, put together lovingly by the hard work and tears of a guy nicknamed Skel, has lain dormant with nary an update in sight, is this the end for HFP? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . MEANWHILE, in the sphere of real life, production on HFP’s first feature Modern Toss has taken place, would have been completed too, if Kidneys and Tonsils hadn’t gotten in the way. Keep an eye out for it, be released any decade now.
Elsewhere in the news, people, as they tend to do, died. One of them was Tony Scott, brother of Ridley Scott and director of a film I savaged; Déjà vu. However you view the circumstances of his death, or the body of his film work, Tony Scott is a guy who left a mark on the studio system, and I was seriously considering writing some sort tribute, or commentary about the guy. Thank fuck production of Toss got in the way of that, cause there’s no way my writing style is suited to such a thing, and it’d probably have amounted to little more than a kick to a guy who’s already down for the count…………….. Albeit one that no one ever reads. Perspective thus gained, I nixed the whole idea and went about the business of poorly directing actors in sex scenes.
But a nagging feeling kept coming back to me, see when Tony Scott died, (suicide is dying no matter how abhorrent the act may be to certain tolerant religious groups and I see no need to differentiate between the two, sorry Camus) and wouldn’t leave, no matter how much I tried to ignore it with cigarettes and subways. It wasn’t the sadness of loss, I didn’t know the guy, nor was it the fact there’d be no more Tony Scott films, I didn’t like most of them. It was the feeling proper accreditation hadn’t really been given. In England, the story of a Hollywood guy committing suicide is inevitably a story that becomes pervasive in every newspaper, speculation on motive etc. will run rife, and people get distracted from bigger stories, like a coalition government announcing it sees most disabled people as fakers, undeserving of basic dignity, who should be forced to work jobs they’re not suited for, or left to die penniless.
Distracting form the victimisation of disabled people aside, the problem I had with these stories, was that they lazily (and yes, even the ‘good’ papers like The Guardian and The Independent are included in this), described Scott as Top-Gun Director, or Top-Gun director and brother of Ridley, which to me, completely misses the point. Tony Scott, like him or hate him, regardless of Top Gun and elder brother Ridley, was a filmmaker in his own right, he made Top Gun in 1986 (incidentally a year before I was born) and went on to make a career for himself (directing over a dozen films), moving into a more serious and much, much, much less homo-erotic style of film-making as the years passed, (stated as fact, not as commentary on the merits of homo-eroticism in films). In fact, one of the films he made, was so good, I had to double check to make sure he was actually the brains behind it. I had to do this because the film I’m about to review, is in my opinion, an absolute classic, and I’m labelling it (because all labels are arbitrary damn it!) as such. So here, way past the date to be anywhere near socially relevant, is the closest I’ll come to a eulogy or a tribute to Tony Scott, a review of what I believe to be his finest hour………..
Film Review Classic: Enemy of the State
Director: Tony Scott (1998)
Let’s go straight into the plot summary shall we……………….
Will Smith plays Robert Clayton Dean, a rather charming family man, (married to the gorgeous Regina King, so that may account for some of his charm). Dean is a hotshot young lawyer who buys sexy underwear for his wife, (Regina King does NOT need sexy underwear to be sexy, Regina King is simply sexy). While out buying unnecessarily sexy underwear for his wife, Dean has a brief collision with an old school friend named Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee, as in that Jason Lee, as in My Name is Earl Jason Lee, as in, ‘oh my none existent god how can someone as cool as you be a freakin scientologist’, Jason Lee), who, unluckily for Robert, sneaks a DVD into his shopping bag before fleeing into the path of an oncoming truck. This is unlucky because the DVD happens to contain footage of the murder of a congressman (Jason Robards) at the hands of a government kill squad (more on them later), all masterminded by National Security Agency (NSA) big shot Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight).
The agency doesn’t want the American public to know they killed a congressman because it’s illegal, (though not always the other way round apparently)………..and also because if the great unwashed did find out, it could prove difficult to pass a bill through congress allowing The NSA to effectively spy on anyone, ever. I have to assume this was a time when the NSA budget was too stretched to simply buy their way through congress, which, as Michael More films have taught me, is how EVERYTHING EVIL EVER in America gets done.
Using clever technology, (insanely small cameras, satellites etc) and theoretical camerawork that’s a bit like Photoshop meets Skynet (actually makes sense as a device and isn’t overblown or exaggerated, did this guy really direct Déjà Vu with its awful time window concept!?!), The NSA concludes that Dean may or may not have the DVD, could have just asked him really, oh wait they tried that too, never mind. Not wanting to risk their little congressman murder getting out, the NSA embarks upon a policy of discrediting Dean, burying him in the papers by suggesting he has mob ties (see next paragraph), had an extramarital affair (see next paragraph), cancelling his credit cards (not mentioned in next paragraph), and bugging his home, clothes and phone with a thousand scary looking bugs.
NEXT PARAGRAPH: Right, this is where it gets a little complicated, but also where the depth of Enemy of the State comes from………. four years earlier, Dean had an affair with Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet). Rachel acts as a go between for Dean and a ‘hacker/private spy’ named Brill (Gene Hackman), who recorded a video involving a mob boss for a case Dean was working on. Brill is the spy version of Obi-Wan Kenobi (proper Alec Guinness version), who gets reluctantly dragged into the fray when the NSA frame Dean for Rachel’s death, and the two end up on the run together. Got it? Good.
The rest of the film is Dean’s attempts to reclaim his life, clear his name, and with the help of Brill, take down Reynolds and the rest of the NSA goon squad. Plot Summary is over.
Right, so if you’re keeping up, the names so far have been; Will Smith, Jon Voight, Gene Hackman, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Jason Robards and Jason freakin Lee. Add to that, the NSA goon squad (told you there’d be more on that later) which features names like Seth Green, Jack Black, Scott Caan, Jamie Kennedy, Barry Pepper and Loren Dean), now include a wider support cast that features Anna Gunn (pre-Breaking Bad days), Tom Sizemore, Phillip Barker Hall and Gabriel Byrne, top that with a guest cameo from Larry King as himself, and you have a pretty incredible cast. I don’t normally look too far into casting directors, but Victoria Thomas has a back catalogue to salivate over, and deserves credit, the cast for Enemy of the State is incredible, with every role filled by a character actor who can bring a character to life no matter how little screen time.
Next plaudits go to the leads. I rarely ever get bored watching Will Smith, he’s a charming actor who has real range, on top of that, he was The Fresh Prince, so he can also be funny and dance like a morn. He brings everything but the dance to the screen here. Smith is just so damn likeable, you really feel for him when things get out of control, and you’re dying for him to get one over on the bad guys in the NSA. Then there’s Gene Hackman, he doesn’t come into events until about half-way through, but from that point the story becomes gripping. Brill is either a character made for gene Hackman, or Gene Hackman made Brill’s character his own, either way he’s a wonderful source of grumpiness, glib humour and despite being a bit of an arsehole, actually really likeable. He plays off Smith’s likeability factor perfectly, and the two become this really almost cute odd-couple, so maybe there is some homo eroticism after all. They’re just really fun, well observed and understated performances, and the two gel together perfectly, sometimes when you get two established leads like this, there’s an element of one-upmanship, (See HEAT Pacino, De Nero diner scene), but not here, it’s all characters, story and timing, the good stuff. There’s also a nice nod from Hackman to his performance as a similar hacker/private spy named Harry Caul in The Conversation (1974) a film that deserves a better place in history the one I feel it occupies.
Speaking of better place in history, it’s time for Tony Scott, from start to finish, the direction in Enemy of the State, is in my opinion, as close to perfect as you can get. The pacing is pitched perfectly, everything moves as lightening pace, but with just enough time distributed between dialogue and action to keep the story followable. Scott demonstrates remarkable restraint (it’s an hour before a gun is even fired, and even then it technically misses), the focus is on Smith and later Hackman, a wonderful amount of screen time is spent establishing their characters, for Smith, that involves the audience watching his life slowly spiral out of control as the arrogant NSA goon squad revel in his suffering. For Hackman, this involves his name being thrown out like a mythological entity long before his appearance graces the screen. There’s even a mislead involving a fake Brill that just adds to the intrigue of the actual character. It’s intelligent, complex and dark story-telling, where even the villains get to show shades of grey personality traits that flesh out their story. Part of the credit has to go to screenwriter David Marconi, but its Tony Scott who takes the depth of the story to the screen and gives it the time needed to be told properly.
I’ll be the first to hold my hand up, I’ve been well critical of Scott’s editing Style over the years; he’s tended to throw tons of shit at the screen, which often stuck over any story that was building, and then thrown in a million and one over the top effects to compensate for lack of depth, interesting characters or credibility (See Domino or Man on Fire for this tendency at its worst), but in Enemy of the State, the opposite holds true. The effects, and there are some very slick ones, all contribute to the story, they add and don’t distract from events on the screen, and are pretty clever. There’s a satellite element that I thinks particularly effective. There are barely any explosions, and when they occur, they’re cool and not over the top, there’s very little gun fire until the climactic scene, which enhances it no end.
Now we come to the end, (don’t worry this is pretty much spoiler free) after the action has finished and the story’s all wrapped up, there’s a final little moment involving Larry King and a brief discussion about the issue of surveillance and defence vs. liberty. It’s the same discussion that was had over the pond after 9/11 and the abhorrently named ‘Patriot Act’ came into being, and is the same one that came up with the more accurately though slightly misleadingly named ‘anti-terror laws’ over here in the UK (not sure spying on a family to make sure they live in the correct school catchment area can be called ‘anti-terror’, or the murder of Brazilian plumbers for that matter). The scene is, with hindsight, a chillingly accurate premonition of what was to come, and a hell of a ballsy way to end, what could well have been just another (if slightly intelligent) Hollywood action film, instead it’s as good an ending as I’ve seen in this type of film, and just makes Enemy of the State, in my opinion, more relevant than perhaps even Tony Scott intended.
To conclude, Enemy of the State is just a sublime example of storytelling, there’s a depth of talent, depth of performance, depth of story and depth of meaning. It’s a film that works on three important levels, on one it’s a fun action film, on two it’s an intelligent deep film that isn’t insulting to the audience, and up on three, it’s an important film, looking, in brutally honest fashion, at one of the greatest debates still being had (secret courts anyone) in the (relatively) liberal democracies of today. This film would be considered the finest hour of many a director, and Tony Scott deserves a lot more praise for it then he seems to have received, yes he did Top Gun, and yes he fucked with Man on Fire, but my none existent god did he achieve something with this, and it’s an achievement I’ll choose to remember him by, even if I do review some of his other horseshit someday. But, I don’t want to end a film review like this with a sentence that encompasses the word horseshit, so here come’s my closing sentence.
Closing sentence: Tony Scott had talent, a lot of it, doubt me? Go and watch Enemy of the State, it’s a classic.
Written by Sam ‘Enemy of your mate’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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