Laura Clifford Robin Clifford
The slumbering giant, China, is about to enter into a major trade agreement with the west, led by the United States, when a freighter is discovered in New York Harbor with a grisly cargo of dead Chinese refugees. Negotiations are further strained when Chinese Ambassador Wu (James Hong) is assassinated while giving a speech to a large, media-saturated gathering of diplomats at the UN. Special United Nations agent, Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes), is framed for the murder and he goes on the lam to clear his own name and uncover what may be a conspiracy of massive proportions in "The Art of War."
Director Christian Duguay ("Screamers") leads a talented cast and crew in what starts off as a pretty slick actioner for the first hour. After that, the story degenerates into a routine thriller where the good guy not only has to save the day, he has to do so while being betrayed by his own people. The film starts out interesting enough with a massive Millennium celebration in the heart of Hong Kong. Neil Shaw, the covert spook for UN Secretary General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland), performs a high tech information theft under the noses of the North Korean security officers. He then blackmails their finance minister and makes a daring escape jumping from a skyscraper with a parachute. All of this is slickly done with shoot-outs, kung fu and lots of eye-popping action.
Things move along pretty well with the set up and execution (forgive the pun) of the assassination of the ambassador (an under-utilized Hong), then the fast moving action as Shaw chases the real killer through a maze of obstacles only to get himself arrested for the murder. FBI boss Frank Capella smells a rat over the arrest, but Shaw is hijacked away by the henchman for the conspiracy to stop the historic trade agreement from happening. Shaw makes a daring escape from his captors, kicking butt and taking names in the process. Then things grind to a halt.
Pretty UN interpreter Julia Fang (Marie Matiko) is brought into the mix as the beautiful innocent bystander who is drawn unwillingly into the nefarious plot. She, of course, provides Shaw with invaluable assistance - after all she is an interpreter - while he saves her time and time again from the bad guys. We've been there many times before, but, this time, there isn't even any romantic or sexual innuendo between Shaw and Julia, until the tacked on epilogue where they live happily ever after together. There is no chemistry between Snipes and Matiko and this does serious injury to the film.
The rest of the mumbo jumbo of the second half of the movie is plagued with the proliferation of bad guys. In the first half, mysterious and ruthless Chinese businessman Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, "Rising Sun") is painted as the puppet-master pulling the strings of the conspirators from behind the scenes. When he is abruptly killed by Shaw, the focus of the film changes as a larger, more secretive conspiracy looms and Shaw learns that his partner Bly (Michael Biehn) and boss Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), supposedly his friends, are really his enemies. The jingoistic explanation - basically, America-For-Americans and Say-No-To-China - as to why these highly trained, intelligent people would behave the way they do is so trite and simple-minded, I just shook my head.
Screenwriters Wayne Beach and first-timer Simon Davis Barry have cobbled together a mishmash of a story that starts off OK, but goes downhill when the rapid-paced action stops and the "character development" begins. Unfortunately, where Wesley Snipes excels is as the smart-ass, wisecracking action good guy who puts his life on the line for God and country. He does that here in "The Art of War" but his character lacks any of the mirth that makes the actor so likable. His Neil Shaw is a stoic good guy who is betrayed and must get his justice done, but there is no passion in the character or the performance.
There is a big supporting cast playing around in this celluloid sandbox, but none, with the notable exception of the great Maury Chaykin, has much to do. Chaykin, whom I first saw and respected in Atom Egoyan's 1991 Canadian film "The Adjuster," has always had my admiration as a fine character actor who is capable of humor and drama. As Frank Capella, he brings to life the sketchy character, making the savvy FBI agent a sympathetic character (you're shocked when he is gunned down, point blank, and breathe a sigh of relief when he pulls off his bulletproof vest) and, ultimately, the one who believes in Shaw. The rest of the cast - Donald Sutherland, Anne Archer, Michael Biehn, Marie Matiko, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa - goes through the motions dictated by the lame script, collecting a paycheck along the way.
Technically, things are of high quality and give the film a good crisp look with lots of nighttime photography (by Montreal-based Pierre Gill), garish, bright-colored sets and flashy action choreography, none of which help to save this disappointment. I like Snipes and enjoy his films like "Passenger 57." As for "The Art of War"? It should surrender. I give it a C-.
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