By Ron Wells | November 23, 1998

I hope Coppola got some change out of this since producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott and writer David Marconi have decided to make some weird quasi-sequel to Coppola’s “The Conversation”. They were even cheeky enough to bring in Gene Hackman as essentially the same character.
Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith) is a D.C. labor lawyer and family man out Christmas shopping for his wife when he intercepts Zavitz (Jason Lee), a friend from college. Dean gives Zavitz his business card, and unbeknownst to Dean, Zavitz drops an item into Dean’s shopping bag. The item contains a video of a murder that occurred before the opening credits, and Zavitz is promptly murdered by N.S.A. agents moments later. They don’t find the tape, but they find Dean’s business card.
At this point, Dean’s credit cards are canceled, newspapers print reports linking him to the mob, yadda, yadda, yadda, you get the idea. He meets his ex-girlfriend (Lisa Bonet), who happens to be his contact for a mysterious surveillance expert who’s provided him evidence before to figure out what’s happening. The two meet in a park and the scene looks awfully familiar, likeé the opening scene of “The Conversation”. Who does the surveillance expert turn out to be? Why Gene Hackman, as Brill, or Lyle, or maybe even Harry Caul. Turns out he’s an ex-N.S.A. surveillance genius who went underground in 1980 after something went wrong. So Brill and Dean team up and hilarity ensues.
Who’d have thought I’d miss the subtle touch of the late Don Simpson? At least Bruckheimer decided to spread the wealth by hiring every other young male star of tomorrow in the supporting cast. There’s Seth Green (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Austin Powers”), Jamie Kennedy (“Scream”), Ian Hart (“Backbeat”), Jake Busey (“Starship Troopers”) and Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”), all as young government agents. James Le Gros (“Drugstore Cowboy”,”Phantasm II”) and Gabriel Byrne (“Miller’s Crossing”) are both in it for literally 5 seconds. What sucks is, most of these guys would have been more convincing in the lead than Will Smith who may be the most unconvincing “movie lawyer” of the year.
Tony Scott has cajones, though. He turns up the juice to school Michæl Bay any chance he gets. The drinking game would be to swig every time they cut to earth orbit to watch a spy satellite go by. No amount of quick-cut editing can cover up the weaknesses. The strong parts are the rip-offs of “The Conversation”. The worst part is the lack of understandable character motivations. The chief antagonist is an N.S.A. section chief named Reynolds (Jon Voight). I guess Voight saw all of Gary Oldman’s films from the past five years and said, “I could do that.” It’s what he did in “The Rainmaker” and it’s what he’s done here. The only motivation for the initial murder seems to be career advancement, not any kind of political belief. Parts of the first hour before Hackman appears are appalling. Smith’s character isn’t much more than a well-meaning punching bag until Hackman saves him. There’s no depth to Dean other than a distant affair with Bonet. When trying to negotiate union business away from a mob leader (Tom Sizemore), he only gets himself into worse trouble. It would have been more interesting to have Dean killed in the first twenty minutes and have the wife (Regina King) find the tape and solve the crisis, but then I wouldn’t want to stand in the way of The Fresh Prince’s career path of role model and movie star.

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