We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Will Smith is a charismatic actor who exudes effortlessness; he’s got both movie-star presence and the ability to connect with almost any audience. As Enemy of the State’s Robert Dean, Smith gets to act out a dramatic parallel of his screen duality—easygoing anonymous fellow and most wanted individual. His character is a Washington labor lawyer with a nice life, wife, and kid who accidentally becomes No. 1 on the National Security Agency’s “to-kill” list. A videotape of an NSA operative (Jon Voight) murdering a congressman (Anthony Quinn) over the passage of an upcoming privacy bill finds its way into the hands of a conspiracy theorist and old Georgetown Law School colleague of Dean’s. While Christmas shopping in the world’s sleekest lingerie store, Dean runs into his old pal, who whispers, “Help me,” before accepting one of Dean’s business cards and slipping the disk-sized tape into Dean’s shopping bag. Soon Dean is the target, losing his wife, home, and job in quick succession.

The film’s twist on the old innocent-fugitive bugaboo is this matter of civic privacy. As Dean is chased through streets, buildings, and floors of buildings, his every move is detailed by hundreds of discreetly placed cameras; many of these are high-tech NSA designs, but many are also everyday surveillance systems we may not know we live with. Enemy of the State is a truly paranoid piece of filmmaking: Every line, from pay phones to home phones, is traceable; there are the bugs they want you to find and the ones you’ll never find; and don’t consider your credit-card purchases, bank account information, or videotape rentals secure, either. This atmosphere of dangerous exposure is hugely enjoyable, since it ups the stakes for Dean—he must elude and defeat the watchers in full view.

The script’s solution to this interesting conundrum is a cheat. Through a complicated series of contacts, Dean meets up with a cranky ex-NSA golden boy Brill (Gene Hackman), who was screwed by the agency and left it, taking his toys with him. Enemy of the State argues that if you’re caught on the wrong side of the government’s intrusive surveillance measures, you can defeat them by having better equipment, as well as some handy explosives—not exactly a rousing case for Fourth Amendment protection.

But Enemy of the State has another trick up its sleeve: It’s a lengthy and overcomplicated metaphor for the persecution of young black men. If the scenario doesn’t sound familiar enough to black audiences, the script gives the bad guys justifications for keeping an eye on the populace that use the same code as white-supremacist leaflets: “We are at war 24 hours of every day,” says one of the insiders. The techies who do the grunt work claim that they’re dispassionate foot soldiers. As Dean is stripped of the markers that identify him as a decent, tax-paying citizen—his good credit, family, and Georgetown home—he finds he can become anonymous only by becoming the kind of black man that people expect to see. Before long, he’s slouching around Washington in a knit cap and Polartec jacket, participating in a carjacking and forced to carry a gun. The script sets up a racial hierarchy from the start, with Dean the swanky lawyer above the greasy “guineas” (a term he objects to, then uses) who are strong-arming the local labor unions. Over the course of the film, Dean is forced to eat small amounts of crap, accepting with a smile the term “eggplant” (those foul guidos!) and various remarks about his presumed stupidity.

Enemy of the State is an intricate and often messy piece of work, with amazing coincidences and numerous subplots stuck over the holes like so much narrative gum. Such handy dovetailing is less noticeable in the lean, swift action flicks that inspired this one, but with 128 minutes and a set of conspiracies-within-accidents-within-coincidences to roll into one unwieldy ball, every contradictory motive and subsidiary character betrays its pointlessness. The movie is a good time—Smith’s presence guarantees that much, and Tony Scott’s zippy direction flatters the script’s unsightly bloat—but as a good, liberal take on privacy issues, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Sunday, and the theater’s almost empty. What time is it? Geez, it’s 12:30, let’s get on with it, people. Here we go: Trailer for You’ve Got Mail; that Meg Ryan, she’s so cuddly you could just squeeze her till she popped. Ooh boy, trailer for The Thin Red Line—lookin’ good, Terrence. Who isn’t in this thing? We’re ready to Meet Joe Black, yesiree.

Finally. Anthony Hopkins must be playing the richest-man-in-the-whole-U.S.-of-A. Bill Parrish, head of Parrish Communications—according to his elder daughter’s guest list, everyone from the president to half the Fortune 500 are coming to his 65th birthday party. Hope nothing bad happens to him before that. As for the daughter, who put Marcia Gay Harden’s face in a blender? Poor thing; I wouldn’t wish the role of neurotic, love-starved harpy on anyone. Even Meg Ryan.

Younger daughter, Susan, played by Claire Forlani; I should be jotting this down. She’s a doctor. Pretty girl, except she has that Renée Zellweger way of expressing emotion, by scrunching up her face so that it looks like she’s gonna cry. Is Brad Pitt even in this?

There he is, playing a guy hitting on Susan in a coffee shop. Damn, he’s just been creamed by a truck! That’s gotta hurt. I should make a pit stop before the plot kicks in. You only rent Cherry Coke, and that was an hour ago.

…So Death is kind of a bully, huh? I mean, here he is wearing the dead guy’s Brad Pitt body and he’s actually taunting Parrish and ordering him to shut up and stuff. Isn’t it enough that he’s Death? Oh, I see, if Bill shows Death around a bit, he can postpone the inevitable. Does Death know that most people don’t take a helicopter into work every morning? And hey, isn’t he needed in Japan and Toledo and Micronesia and Antarctica and Kosovo and cancer wards and fishing boats? Is Death on hold? Would this be a good time to tell Jesse Helms he has a face like a trout and call Mike Tyson a pussy? Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em, people of Earth!

I don’t think they’ve thought the theology through. So Death is a passive-aggressive jerk with a cutesy taste for peanut butter—he’s like the devil as a big baby. Why is he holding his arms to his side like someone in Riverdance? You’d think he’d want to try out that fab new body. Oh, I see, he does want to try it out, on Miss Susan. Is that irony or just kind of gross? Nap time…

Whatthe—?! Brad Pitt is exchanging morbid banter with an old woman in a hospital, and they’re both speaking in a lilting Caribbean accent. I’m still dreaming. No, that can’t be—I was having my favorite dream, the one where Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Ewan McGregor are making out. So sweet, to sleep…

Oh, God, they’re having another of those tedious exchanges, consisting mostly of “You tell me,” “I don’t know,” and “You could put it that way.” Not much of a conversationalist, that Death. Even Nic Cage learned to smile in City of Angels, and that movie wasn’t 181 hours, I mean minutes, long. Now the family is arguing at the dinner table over whether or not Dad gives a shit about the party. He relents and makes nice with older daughter. “He gives a shit,” she sighs. That makes one of us.

The subplot, I’d clean forgotten. If it was a turkey I woulda burned it. Will the board of Parrish Communications sell the company to a businessman who’s only in business to make a profit? As moral dilemmas go, this one’s a doozy. Oh, please, don’t let the fabulously wealthy capitalist pigs lose their good family name! Finally, the night of the party; I thought this watch lit up but it doesn’t. Joe Black wants to take Susan with him. Would that make her Queen of Death? Kewl. Dad argues vehemently against. Joe goes to confess to Susan. Gotta pee again.

Oy, she’s still saying, “You’re, you’re…” which is where I left her. “You’re Joe.” Oh, for crying out loud, woman, that means we’re in for another goodbye scene. Did I leave my inhaler in the bathroom? Yes, I think so. Ticket, ticket, where are you? Damn, where’s that ticket stub? Well, Death and the maiden are having one of their interminable farewell chats, and the fireworks are a-booming. No one will notice if I just slip out. I got the major plot points down. And anyway, what are the chances the screening is still going on? It must have ended there, right? Right?CP