Enemy of the State (1998) ****

You are the star of the show so the last thing you want is to team up with a scene-stealer, but if you want to work with such an renowned talent, what can you do but let him steal.

It says a lot for Gene Hackman’s legendary status that, long past his box office peak in this fast-paced surprisingly contemporary paranoia thriller, his appearance late in the day turns up the heat on Will Smith at an early career pinnacle and at his charming best. You need someone as easy on the eye as Smith to lead the audience through a tortuous plot, centering on the collusion of big business and government to push through a commercially-motivated U.S. Government Act promoting greater surveillance, and someone as inherently gutsy as Hackman to carry the film over the line.

Ironically, the McGuffin is surveillance of the most benign kind, a camera trained on ducks at a river inadvertently picking up evidence of corrupt politician Reynolds (Jon Vogt) overseeing the murder of Representative Hammersley (Jason Robards) who stands in his way. The tape finds its way to an investigative reporter who, pursued by Hammersley’s goons, drops it into the shopping bag of labor lawyer Robert (Will Smith).

Unaware of the reasons why, Robert’s life unravels, Hammersley’s guys fabricating evidence that he has revived an affair with former lover Rachel (Lisa Bonet) and  is involved in Mafia money-laundering, resulting in wife  Carla (Regina King) throwing him out and being fired from his job. Bank accounts frozen (natch!), Robert turns to Rachel for help and she puts him in touch with her source Brill a.k.a Edward Lyle (Gene Hackman), an undercover communications expert who has been feeding Rachel information. When Rachel is eliminated, Lyle teams up with Robert and together they come up with a daring plan to incriminate Reynolds and absolve Robert.

Although brim-full of twists and turns, and a relentless government hit squad, the real joy of the picture is Tony Scott’s direction. Using his trademark speedy cuts, and scaring the life out of the audience regarding the depth of available surveillance, this is a thriller tour de force. The Top Gun (1986) director is at the top of his game, seamlessly shifting keys, racketing up the tension, the NSA’s encroachment on civil liberty so extensive it appears nobody can escape a web that is inexorably drawn tighter.

And it’s a fabulous double act, the innocent but slick Robert coupled with the world-weary but clever Lyle, the non-stop-talker versus the virtually silent. It’s the cat and mouse game where the mice turn out to hold the aces. Just brilliantly done and at such a speed. A plot that could easily become convoluted is superbly handled.

Will Smith (Independence Day, 1996) is given free rein and he’s good value for money, holding audience attention seamlessly, and until Gene Hackman (Crimson Tide, 1995) enters the frame he is running away with the picture. Their acting styles are completely different and you shouldn’t really be comparing them but when it comes to the crunch Hackman nails it every time and with hardly doing anything. Lisa Bonet (Angel Heart, 1987) makes a welcome return to the big-budget Hollywood scene. Jon Voigt (Midnight Cowboy, 1969) enjoys one of his better supporting roles.

The screenplay by David Marconi (The Dark Side of the Moon, 2015) is quite superb, not just with a whole series of riveting set-pieces and some terrific dialogue, but also with more humane touches, such as Robert’s encounter with his kids or his embarrassment shopping for lingerie in Victoria’s Secret.

And if there were not bonuses enough, there’s a virtual smorgasbord of talent in the supporting cast starting with 26-year-old Regina King (Boyz in the Hood, 1991) through Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan, 1998), Scott Caan (Ocean’s Eleven, 2001), Jake Busey (Starship Troopers, 1997), Jason Lee (Vanilla Sky, 2001) and Jamie Kennedy (Scream, 1996)  all the way to Gabriel Byrne (The Usual Suspects, 1995), Ian Hart (Backbeat, 1994) and Jack Black (School of Rock, 2003).

Stone cold classic not to be missed and worth another watch if you have viewed it already.

The Parallax View (1974) ****

The shocking ending ensures the need to re-evaluate everything you have seen. The middle film in Alan J. Pakula’s paranoia trilogy – after Klute (1971) with All the President’s Men (1976) to come – is a dark (in more ways than one) reflection in essence on the John F. Kennedy assassination. The superbly stylish, on occasion over-stylised, cinematography carries an undercurrent of fear.  

Ambitious reporter Joe (Warren Beatty) investigates the notion that too many witnesses, including ex-girlfriend Lee (Paula Prentiss), to a senatorial assassination have been dying. Joe’s boss Bill (Hume Cronyn), while turning up acceptable reasons for each death, reluctantly backs him. Other witnesses such as Tucker (William Daniels) have run for cover. But, as Joe soon discovers, nobody can hide forever.  

Joe’s initial foray leads him to a small-time small-town Sheriff Wicker (Kelly Thorsden) with an unexpectedly large bank balance and murderous intent. Finding a link to a mysterious company the Parallax Corporation, Joe takes a written psychometric test to become a potential recruit for a company that is seeking, apparently, to find the hidden talents of under-achievers. After preventing one attempt on the life of another senator (Charles Carroll), Joe realises Parallax will stop at nothing.

Effectively, it’s a straightforward private eye number, Joe moving from character to character, building up a case. But the way Pakula frames the film, peppered with unusual scenes, turns it into an exercise in tension. One of Joe’s contacts works in a lab that is trying to train chimpanzees to play video ping-pong. Another scene takes place, disconcertedly, on a miniature train. At times we can hear every word delivered, even with the camera far away from the speakers, other times we hear nothing. Ominous music appears sparingly. Every step Joe takes in solving the mystery pushes him further into a corporate heart of darkness.

Beatty in the bar he’s about to wreck after ordering a drink of milk.

Joe believes Parallax are recruiting assassins but in point of fact their aim is considerably more devious. And here I don’t see how I can avoid a SPOILER ALERT. Parallax already have their assassins on board. What they are looking for are dupes, a patsy to take the blame once the killing has been done.

So when you look back from the ending what you find is that the cocky reporter is in fact exactly the kind of under-achiever the Parallax web attracts. There’s no proof of Joe’s editorial pedigree. Bill can point to any number of stories where Joe got hold of the wrong end of the stick. And the audience can see for themselves that he’s not exactly a super-brain. Sure, he can easily, with the help of a psychiatrist, pass the psychometric test, but how is he going to fare when he is linked up to some kind of machine that measures his response to visual imagery?

And you have to wonder what kind of idiot gets on a plane he suspects has a bomb on board  instead of staying off the aircraft and making a phone call. Or how he managed, after surviving an explosion at sea, to swim several miles to shore and land on a beach without drawing attention to himself so that he can masquerade as a dead man.

There’s also a curious section where Joe triggers a fist fight that ends in a John Ford-style saloon-wrecking. After killing the suspicious sheriff and hijacking his car, Joe then, in true French Connection style, sparks a car chase, managing to evade his pursuers by (natch) jumping onto the back of a passing truck.

But for all these flaws, there is something hypnotic about the picture. A camera that moves with snail-like precision from extreme long shot to medium shot or close-up, a reining in of flamboyance in favor of discipline, and shadow given its biggest outing since the film noir golden era. Pakula was trying to make an obvious point about the shady authorities that exercise behind-the-scenes power. The government is either powerless or complicit, various hearings into assassinations discovering zilch. Paranoia is no less prevalent now, of course, but what makes the biggest impact is journalistic entitlement, the reporter who can change things because he is willing to go down those dark streets like an avenging angel, not realizing he is always going to one step behind.

Warren Beatty (Kaleidoscope, 1966) has lost all the acting tics, the mumbling and stuttering he used to inflict on a weaker director, and instead delivers a great performance. Which is just as well because it’s a one-man show. Paula Prentiss (Man’s Favorite Sport, 1964) barely appears before she’s bumped off. William Daniels (Two for the Road, 1967) eschews his normal harassed husband for a well-judged turn.     

David Giler (Aliens, 1986) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (Three Days of the Condor, 1975) fashioned the screenplay form the novel by Loren Singer. Also worth a mention is the eerie score by Michael Small (Klute, 1971) who for a time was the go-to composer for paranoia pictures.

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