I'll tell you what one does not expect of a thriller produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Tony Scott, and starring Will Smith, released in 1998 when Smith, for one, was at his all-time most commercially marketable: that it would predict, so casually that it's almost banal, one of the biggest U.S. domestic policy shitstorms of the mid-'00s. And even take sides! A mere fifteen years later, it's largely the case that movies which want to make any money at the box office are scrupulously careful not to possess real-world political ramifications (after all, it's not just partisan Americans, but a whole world full of people that contemporary Hollywood is trying to appease), but Enemy of the State, made by some of the most money-oriented people in that decade, just hops right on into the messy business of how many personal freedoms are sacrificed in the name of "national security", painting a terrifying (and technologically dubious) portrait of how many different ways the U.S. government can monitor its citizens' behavior, without ever considering that the audience might not be on board with that sentiment. Which, this being prior to 2001 and all, was a fairly safe assumption to make, and that's actually the most startling thing about watching the movie: in '98, this wasn't really "political" filmmaking at all, given that a surveillance state wasn't something most reasonable people were thinking about all that much.

But the era was still rich with political paranoia thrillers: it was the decade kicked off by JFK, with The X-Files holding court as one of the predominant cool TV shows for intelligent people. And Enemy of the State slots nicely into that genre, updating the paranoia films of the '70s so overtly that it even has Gene Hackman in a supporting role as a character blatantly meant to remind us of his protagonist in the genre masterpiece The Conversation, from 1974 (and Jason Robards, of All the President's Men, kicks off the whole story by getting murdered). If Enemy of the State is plainly not as good as the best of the films its copying, that has everything to do with the change in emphasis between the mid-'70s and the late-'90s, for the biggest difference between this film and its models is an extreme new insistence on action sequences and glossy, surface-level appeal; it is a movie that is entertaining before it is thought-provoking, and it was exactly the opposite case back in the heyday of the paranoia thrillers. Still, being more of a popcorn movie than an intellectual argument doesn't inherently mean that Enemy of the State thus can't be intellectual at all, and if it's certainly shallower than All the President's Men, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, or The Parallax View, it's just as certainly more successful than most '90s updates of the form, like The Pelican Brief or Conspiracy Theory. If nothing else, Scott and his frequent editor Chris Lebenzon did an uncommonly phenomenal job of building the movie such that it had exactly the right sense of frayed, barely-coherent pacing that lets this film, uniquely among its brethren, suggest the feeling of endless paranoia and confusion of its main character through primarily cinematic, not just narrative, means.

One of the most atypical elements of David Marconi's script is that it runs two mostly tandem plot threads, so that we're actually able to keep ahead of the protagonist for nearly the whole time: we know what's going on and how he gets involved long before he does. Briefly, the NSA has a sympathetic congressman trying to push through a bill that will give the agency largely unchallenged authority to spy on anybody under any pretext, and the very principled Republican representative Phillip Hammersley (Robards) is the chief stumbling block. So mid-level NSA director Thomas Reynolds (Jon Voight) has Hammersley killed, and with a lack of imagination positively criminal in a man with the control over camera surveillance that Reynolds is about to demonstrate, Reynolds is unaware that he's been captured on tape by a bird researcher, Daniel Zavitz (Jason Lee). Running from everybody the instant that he figures out what happens, Zavitz is able to sneak his equipment into a shopping bag in possession of an old college friend, Robert Dean (Smith), who doesn't notice anything. Therefore, when shockingly thorough intimidation tactics start assailing the Dean family, he assumes it has to do with the union case he's serving as lawyer for; just a bit of angry mobster blowback. Eventually, it becomes clear that this is much bigger than that, but it still takes a lot of run-ins with many NSA thugs played by an assortment of wholly capable character actors before he starts to piece together exactly what the hell is happening.

There's a rulebook to wrong man thrillers, and Enemy of the State largely follows it without pushing in any new directions. But there's still considerable pleasure to be had in that, when the rules are being followed with as much zest and energy as happens here: I've already mentioned Lebenzon's editing, but it's bringing it up again, simply because it's such a tremendously important part of what gives the film it's delirious feeling, jagged without being discontinuous, fast-paced without being unpleasantly hectic. Of course, that wouldn't be enough without good material to work with, and the film already does a fine job through camera movement (which prefigures the kineticism of the Jason Bourne movies without their aggressiveness) and sound design of creating the kind of constantly-moving, constantly threatening world where the editing can do its best work.

For this, above all, a fast movie. Not endlessly so: at 132 minutes (140 in the unrated cut that I haven't seen, nor can I understand why I'd want to), it's certainly bloated, taking a little bit too long to actually get to "Will Smith running from the bad guys", and then taking even longer to pair him up with Hackman's twitchy off-the-grid survivalist, which is a shame, as Hackman is easily the highlight among a cast of people who largely stand in the place of humans rather than bring them to life (which has to do mostly with how little screentime anybody gets), and his interplay with Smith is probably the most fun thing in a movie that, for all its momentum and excitement, is typically a little too serious and intense to really count as "fun" (indeed, Smith himself is largely kept stern and grim, depriving us of his greatest skill as a movie star, a sardonic grin and terrific way with dialogue that sounds like he's making it up on the spot). It's a little too stretched out in the beginning, but only a little; and once the action starts ramping up it's easy to forge the first act, if not entirely forgive it.

From that point on, Scott and company keep things moving fast enough that there's no time to stop and smell the plot holes (arguably, a more important skill in a movie of this sort than avoiding the holes in the first place), blasting through the somewhat pacey character scenes (there's a subplot about Dean's affair some years ago that goes nowhere, with the ordinarily reliable Regina King, as his wife, not given nearly enough material to make it stick; happily, then, the director simply plows through and doesn't belabor it as much as the screenplay's structure would apparently indicate), and staging the action scenes with impressive force. A dubious, one might even say corny ending is beyond anybody's means to fix it, but like everything else about the film that's bad, it's over quickly.

Patently, the film is no classic - it says a little about the culture that produced it, but not enough to be a great time capsule - and there's not nearly enough of Smith's typical charisma to put Dean over as a great protagonist on the order of the very best wrong men of cinema. But as a simple thriller that wants only to excite and intensify, it's one of the better ones that the late '90s produced, and its political prescience means that's aged better than virtually anything else from the same time. It works, and it will probably still work just as well a generation from now, and that's all there is to it.