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.