Enemy of the State stars Will Smith as a Washington labor lawyer who receives classified information and finds himself hunted by a shadowy government organization...and if you’ve been to the movies at all in the last 20 years, you can probably sketch out the rest of this story on the back of your ticket stub. Smith has his life destroyed by some loose-cannon official (Jon Voight, carving out a lucrative new career playing officious prick villains), and just when he’s at the end of his rope, he gets help from a rogue insider (helllloooo, Gene Hackman). Tables are turned. The nation heals. There’s a head-splitting credit sequence.
Once, these routine paranoiac thrillers had a subtext. In the chilly shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View gave off a feverish heat, babbling truths in their delirious rush of tension. But the ”authority gone mad“ theme has long since gone the way of all popular clichésit has become a genre. A film like Enemy of the State isn’t making subtle comments on Waco or Whitewater. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott get their news from The X-Files and Mission: Impossible; they’ve ripped their story not from today’s headlines but from yesterday’s Variety.
To that end, Enemy of the State borrows its one good idea from Francis Ford Coppola’s cold-sweat classic The Conversation. Gene Hackman’s character in Enemy is essentially a reprise of Harry Caul, the paranoiac soundman he played in Coppola’s film. At one point, the National Security Agency even pulls up the file on their adversary; sure enough, there’s Hackman, sporting the same mustache and sideburns that covered the face of his iconic ’70s surveillance expert. This older Caul (he’s called something else in the movie, but c’mon) has retreated to a cage of technology in an unmarked Baltimore warehouse. Against his own better judgment, he devises a plan to save Smith’s cornered lawyer using the NSA’s own technology.
That one bit of pop-culture horseplay, though, doesn’t justify what is, essentially, a cruelly efficient urban shoot-’em-up with a weak anti-technology message. The message would mean more if Scott could film a sunset without digitally altering the colors of the sky. That aside, he and screenwriter David Marconi have failed the crucial test of the conspiracy-fueled action plot: We never believe for one second that the bad guys wouldn’t just kill the hero if they weren’t following a contrived script. Enemy of the State is one of those movies where the rules seem to change on cuesometimes the government’s tracking devices are inescapable, other times you can ditch them by hopping into an elevator. The movie opens with the mysterious death of a politician, which goes conveniently uninvestigated by the press. One minute, Smith has lost his wife, his job, and all his money; the day after the story climaxes, everything is hunky-dory.
Of course, that’s one element of the ’70s political thriller that hasn’t survived the changing times. It was part of the post-’60s ennui that action films ended with the hero still somewhat in crisis. Nowadays, we’ll accept any kind of government hanky-panky so long as we walk out feeling good. Hmmm...maybe Enemy of the State is more relevant than I thought.
The group that loves Jerry Springer most isn’t poor people: It’s the robber barons who control mass media. Without a fringe dweller like Springer to draw all the flak, we might start paying attention to really frightening matterssuch as why ABC News keeps bending over like Michael Eisner’s cellblock bitch, or why CNN was so quick to placate the Pentagon on the Tailwind debacle. For that reason, we’ll always have a Jerry Springer, a Morton Downey Jr., or a Geraldo to divert us with bread and circusesor, more accurately, with a Moon Pie and a cockfight.
That also makes Springer the most expendable factor in the poverty-plus-outrage-times-exposure formula. Thus the bulk of his vehicle Ringmaster concerns his show’s guests, who agree to hassle and humiliate each other on the air in exchange for a plane ticket and a stay in a nice hotel. Included are a mother-daughter duo (Molly Hagan and Jaime Pressly), who take turns shtupping their husband/step-daddy (Michael Dudikoff), and a no-nonsense flygirl (Wendy Raquel Robinson) with a dick-led boyfriend (Spawn’s Michael Jai White). Ringmaster follows the main attractions through break-ups, breakdowns, and cat fights en route to their 30 minutes of fame.
By hiring actors to play the impoverished guests, then by hooting at their depicted lives, Ringmaster gives vent to a classist vibe that rarely shows up on Jerry Springer proper. For every nod to sisterhood and tolerance, you get a shovel-load of crap in the bargainlike, f’rinstance, gay sex is freaky and disgusting, but lesbian sex is spectator sport. Like the show, Ringmaster is a mixture of uproarious hostility, geek-show psychodrama, and numbing repetition. Some of it is pretty funny, even oddly compassionate. A lot of it isn’t.
As the movie’s star, the blandly empathetic Springer tends to make little appearances and scurry back to his office, a strange way to show solidarity with his guests. It’s easier to laugh at Ringmaster than at the actual show, because everyone involved is a professional actoryou don’t feel like you’re watching homeless people tossed into a boxing ring. But the movie’s sanctimony is as distasteful as the homilies Springer uses to close his show. His speech about giving poor people the same chance to televise their dirty laundry as the rich is the kind of horsepoo that gives a bad name to self-justifying cant. Jerry Springer’s concern for poor people is best expressed by the fact that with Ringmaster, he expects them to pay $6.75 for what they can watch at home for free.
Gorgeously photographed but only mildly diverting, Pupi Avati’s The Best Man tries to compress too much life-changing obsession into too short a time, with characters who don’t seem capable of inspiring that kind of passion. Still, there are some engaging details of wedding rituals and family life in this Italian romantic drama, set on the cusp of the 20th century.
Chafing under the imposition of a fixed marriage, the daughter of a prosperous middle-class family nevertheless agrees to be wed, if only to save face and standing. That changes when the bride, Francesca, meets the best man, Angelo, a self-made millionaire just returned from America. After a single exchanged glance, the love she’s read about in romance novels overwhelms her. Unfortunately, that’s just before she’s to say her vows.
As Francesca, the stunning actress Ines Sastre seems capable of the grand emotions the movie requires; I just couldn’t swallow that she felt them for Diego Abatantuono’s Angelo, a wet-eyed drip who brought back the frustration I always feel watching Scarlett O’Hara throw herself at that teabag Ashley Wilkes. More intriguing is the movie’s witty, ambiguously affectionate portrait of Italy in the waning hours of the 19th century, especially the particulars of arcane traditions and the motivations of the opportunistic wedding party. And Sastre in sepia-toned candlelit glow is lovelywhen she daubs her body with consecrated floral attar, you’ll exhaust your breath cursing the PG rating. The Best Man opens Friday at the Watkins Belcourt.
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