The Art of War
Screenplay : Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Berry (story by Wayne Beach)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Wesley Snipes (Neil Shaw), Anne Archer (Eleanor Hooks), Maury Chaykin (Capella), Marie Matiko (Julia), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (David Chan), Donald Sutherland (Douglas Thomas), Michael Biehn (Bly), Liliana Kmorowska (Novak), James Hong (Ambassador Wu)
Despite being not much more than a typical action flick, "The Art of War" aspires to greater heights by setting itself on a stage of international intrigue and dueling politics between the United States and China with the United Nations caught in the middle. The title alone is a tip-off to the fact that the filmmakers feel they are making something much more grand that what actually appears on-screen. After all, naming a movie after Tzu Sun's 2,500-year-old philosophical masterwork calls a bit of undue attention to a mostly forgettable movie.
Wesley Snipes stars as Neil Shaw, an undercover agent for the United Nations who is framed for the assassination of a Chinese ambassador. China is on the edge of signing a new trade agreement, and it is suspected that the assassination was done with the purpose of foiling the agreement by straining relations between China and the United States. Pursued by both the terrorists who actually killed the ambassador and a dogged FBI detective (Maury Chaykin), Shaw must clear his name without creating an international political crisis.
While the other agents with whom he works are murdered around him, Shaw eventually teams up with Julia (Marie Matiko), a Chinese translator and assistant to David Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), known as the Chinese Donald Trump. Julia witnessed the assassination, and she is sure that Shaw was not the culprit, although that does not necessarily mean she is a willing partner in clearing his name.
Directed by Christian Duguay ("Screamers"), "The Art of War" is a clumsy political conspiracy flick and a passable action flick. Duguay borrows heavily from directors much better than he is, most notably a rain-soaked chase sequence lifted literally verbatim from David Fincher's "Seven" (1995) and a few instances of slow-motion bullet dodging right out of the Wachowski Brothers' "The Matrix" (1998). The rest of the film, most of which is bathed in the cold blue light of cinematographer Pierre Gill ("Joan of Arc" TV miniseries), alternates between long stretches of characters announcing their plans and admitting their crimes with a few rousing scenes of Snipes using his prodigious martial arts skills to take out numerous Chinese assassins.
The majority of "The Art of War" is functional, but none of it is ever inspired. There are some ludicrously dumb moments, such as when Shaw is supposed to be pulling off a super-secret heist and his escape involves parachuting off a high-rise building in downtown Hong Kong in front of thousands of people. Much like James Bond (but without the suave, comic book style), Shaw's strategy seems to constantly involve drawing attention to himself. In one scene, Shaw receives a message that he should stay "under the radar," and in the next scene he's driving a car through the front of a diner in order to foil an attempted bombing.
The movie does have some entertaining moments of pure action, but they are too few and far between in a movie that goes on too long. The biggest problem is the fact that the screenplay by Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Berry takes itself way too seriously. Not even Snipes' amiable presence or Maury Chaykin's jokey performance can diffuse the film's ever-mounting self-importance. Perhaps Beach and Berry felt they were really making some kind of grand political thriller in the vein of "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) or "The Parallax View" (1974). In the end, their whole plot ends up being blamed on a "right wing conspiracy," which, at the very least, should make Hillary Clinton happy.
©2000 James Kendrick