Film: The big picture - Bugs, boys and big bangs


Surveillance is fast becoming Hollywood's theme du jour. First The Truman Show dramatised the comical yet paranoid fantasy of a life unwittingly spent under the scrutiny of 5,000 concealed cameras. Then Brian De Palma, always a keenly voyeuristic director, explored the sinister new possibilities of surveillance technology in Snake Eyes, which featured an astonishing elevated tracking shot over a cross-section of hotel bedrooms - part recording angel, part peeping Tom. Indeed, in a year when Bill Clinton has found his privacy impossible to defend, the conspiracy theorist's credo that Big Brother is watching us feels increasingly plausible.

In Tony Scott's new thriller Enemy of the State, paranoia goes into overdrive. The tone is set in the credit sequence, a hysterical montage of grainy swoops and zooms filmed from on high by panoptic spy satellites: here is the security state in action, we're being told, as street riots and rowdyism are coldly monitored from above and swiftly quashed by the baton- wielding authorities on the ground. About to experience the full might of these digital thieves of liberty is a young DC labour lawyer, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), who is buying his wife Christmas lingerie when an old college friend tears past him out of the shop and thence to an early grave, courtesy of a collision with a Mack truck. Unbeknown to Robert, his late friend slipped him a tape that captures the murder of a senior congressman by rogue forces in the National Security Agency.

The chief rogue in question is one Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight), who understandably wants to get his hands on the tape. He decides to make Robert the target of a smear campaign, sending in his spooks to bug the lawyer's whole wardrobe - pen, watch, cell phone, shoes, trousers - and then discredit his reputation. Soon enough, he finds his name splashed all over the newspapers as a philanderer, his wife (Regina King) kicks him out of the house, and, horror of horrors, all his credit cards are mysteriously cancelled. In desperation he turns for help to an old girlfriend, Rachel (Lisa Bonet), acting as intermediary for the mysterious Brill, a former intelligence operative who has gone underground. That he's played by Gene Hackman is both the film's trump card and a reminder of its source, namely Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), in which Hackman played the surveillance genius Harry Caul. Brill is essentially Harry 25 years later, right down to the black spectacles and the wire-meshed lair full of bugging equipment. Just in case we miss the parallel, there's a tense rendezvous in a public square that's a pure homage to the opening scene of Coppola's film.

The difference between the two films, however, is conspicuous - and instructive. The Conversation was a thriller, but was also a study in one man's spiritual desolation; Harry, a Catholic and a loner, is guilt-ridden by a bugging job he once did which resulted in a grisly double murder, compounding his obsession with privacy - he won't let anybody near him. You can watch The Conversation over and over and still find some new detail each time. How you long for such nuance in Enemy of the State. Sure, there's a creepiness in its early stages as Robert gets sucked into the vortex of technological tyranny, and Will Smith, stripped to his underwear at one stage, does a good impersonation of flummoxed decency.

Yet the stamp of its makers - producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Scott - inevitably begins to show through. For example, it's not enough that Brill and Robert simply flee their bolt-hole once the NSA locate its whereabouts - no, their exit has to be followed by the building being blown sky-high in a humungous explosion; a Bruckheimer special. The film becomes a sequence of chases, down a tunnel, along railway sidings, across hotel roofs, all set to the shuddering percussive soundtrack beloved of these steroid-packing action movies. All that's missing is the signature Bruckheimer shot of the leading characters walking abreast in slo-mo towards camera; fine if they're fighter pilots or astronauts, of course, but heroic group shots of leather-jacketed goons with ear-pieces and handguns might look a touch out of place.

Throughout, the editing has the frenetic, blink-and-it's-gone intensity of a trailer, as if a pause for thought would forfeit an audience's attention. This, I'm afraid, is what the Hollywood blockbuster has come to. Even when it alights on a potentially interesting idea, it hasn't the wit or nerve to let character take precedence over spectacle - chases, fireball explosions, the full shooting match. Maybe this explains why so many movies are beginning to look like one another. Now there's a conspiracy for you.

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