Back when this movie came out in 1998, before the 9-11 attack and the Patriot Act, the idea of the surveillance state having the wherewithal to use information from telephones, e-mail, surveillance cameras and satellites to choreograph a manhunt in real time seemed like a paranoid’s conspiracy theory nightmare. Well, other than for the ineptitude of our intelligence agency doofuses it’s now a living breathing reality.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Jon Voight plays Thomas Reynolds, a mid-level NSA official who is trying to ensure the passage of a bill very close to the Patriot Act that will legalize the kind of surveillance of American citizens that back then was thought unthinkable. In furtherance of this aim he corners the chairman of the congressional committee responsible for approving the bill at a lake where the congressman is walking his dog. He tries persuasion then threats. But when the congressman refuses to approve the bill and walks away from him Reynolds has an assassin assault him and inject him in the neck with a drug that will simulate a heart attack. Then the congressman is thrown back in his car which is then sent rolling to the bottom of the lake.
Unfortunately for Reynolds, there was a surveillance camera in a wildlife blind that was being used for Canadian Geese wildlife research. This motion activated camera captures the murder and the identity of the murderers. A member of the cabal spots the researcher, Daniel Zavitz, replacing the memory on the camera and alerts Reynolds who has the NSA trace the researcher. Zavitz discovers what he has and hides the video in a video game just in time to escape the NSA hit squad sent out by Reynolds. What ensues is the squad being fed street location information on the fleeing researcher via satellite images. Finally, Zavitz runs into a lingerie store and sees a man he knows named Robert Dean and hides the video in Dean’s shopping bag before running out of the store. He is chased by the team into heavy city traffic where he is run over and killed by a speeding fire truck that happens by at that moment.
Will Smith plays Robert Dean, a labor lawyer that is using his friend, Rachel Banks’ connections to get damaging surveillance evidence against a mafia mob boss to help his client fight back against union breaking intimidation tactics. Rachel has an ex-CIA agent named “Brill” who can get surveillance on anyone. Dean brings the video to the mob boss and tells him to lay off or risk being exposed to prosecution for the evidence on the video. The mob boss threatens Dean that if he does not reveal the identity of Brill, he will kill Dean. Undeterred, Dean goes shopping for a Christmas present for his wife Carla in a lingerie store when Daniel Zavitz shows up. Recognizing Zavitz he hands him his business card before his old acquaintance rushes out of the store.
Meanwhile the NSA team searches Zavitz’ body and fails to find the video but they find Dean’s business card. Reynolds orders them to destroy Dean’s life to facilitate finding the video and also to discredit him in case he tries to expose the video to the public.
And very systematically that is exactly what they do. They break into his home in order to place microphones and tracking devices into his home and his clothing. They send evidence to the police, newspapers and to his courtroom adversaries that makes it appear that he is guilty of fraud, theft and malfeasance. They send photos to his wife that make it appear he is having an affair with Rachel Banks. He’s fired from his job, his credit cards are cancelled and his wife throws him out of the house. Finally in desperation he goes to Rachel Banks’ house. She had at one time been his mistress so he needed her help in clearing his name with his wife. But when he gets there, he finds her murdered and his clothes and belongings staged in the house to make him the suspect.
Now with nowhere else to turn he uses Rachel’s secret signal to contact Brill. Brill, played by Gene Hackman, tells Dean the bad news that the NSA is destroying his life for some information he must have received without knowing it. He also warns him that his clothes must be bugged then he leaves Dean to his fate. Finally, after a manhunt that chases Dean through streets and tunnels and down the side of a hi-rise hotel he sets fire to a building to summon police and rescue personnel to scare off the killers. After he is inside an ambulance, he steals an officer’s gun and escapes. He returns home and finds the video and then meets up with Brill.
We learn that Brill was an NSA agent who was disowned by the agency out of convenience when a mission went sour. His partner was killed in the mission and the partner’s daughter was Rachel Banks. Brill brings Dean to his secret hide out. They decipher the video and discover what the fuss is about. But unfortunately, right before reaching Brill’s base, Dean made a phone call to his wife and the NSA was able to find his location and using satellite data they followed them back to Brill’s base. As the agents break in, Brill and Dean escape just as the building is pulverized by an enormous fireball of an explosion. In the ensuing chase the video is destroyed and so Brill and Dean decide to entrap Reynolds into a confession. But the plan backfires and Brill and Dean are captured by Reynolds and the team. Reynolds threatens to kill Brill and Dean if they do not give up the video. Brill refuses and Reynolds shoots him in the hand. Dean agrees to get him the video and tells them to drive to the restaurant owned by the Mafia mob boss.
Dean goes into the restaurant with Reynolds and some of the agents and using confusion between the video that Dean had shown the mob boss previously and the video that Reynolds wants, he gets the two groups into an argument that turns into a full-on fire fight. Reynolds, the mob boss and most of the gunmen on both sides are killed in the shootout. But Dean had hit the floor and survived. Brill escaped in the confusion and the FBI which had been monitoring the crime family shows up in time to collect the survivors and sort out the crimes involved. Dean is cleared of all the crimes he had been accused of and reinstated in his job and restored to his family. Brill escapes to an island paradise to leave behind the world of espionage.
This movie is one long frenetic chase. But for the most part it’s entertaining. Sure, there are some over the top sequences and some of the characters are a little thin on acting skill but the action sweeps you along and the predicament that Will Smith’s character endures keeps your attention through all the running, jumping, hiding and seeking. And after what we’ve learned in the last five years about the capabilities and lack of ethics at our intelligence agencies it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all. Will Smith and Gene Hackman provide just enough old guy-young guy chemistry to provide some interest in their espionage mission. I’ll recommend this movie as a full tub of popcorn’s worth of thrills.