In the pretentiously titled “The Art of War,” a B-level international thriller brought to the screen by Morgan Creek and Elie Samaha’s production company, Wesley Snipes plays an American agent who gets involved in the emerging trade relations between China and the Western world, with a shaky U.N. set amid the diplomatic intrigues. Despite Christian Duguay’s messy direction and Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry’s lopsided script, Snipes’ charismatic performance gives the pic the semblance of an actioner with three or four highly pleasing chase scenes. Warners’ late summer release will have an OK opening due to support from African-American patrons and genre’s aficionados — it’s been awhile since Hollywood’s last conspiracy actioner — but a quick theatrical playoff is expected once reviews and unenticing word-of-mouth kick in.
Almost every element in “Art of War” is slightly off, beginning with the timing of its release: Yarn is set on the eve of the new millennium. In a particularly cacophonous opening, a colorfully decadent party in Hong Kong that almost dwarfs the dialogue, we learn that China is about to sign a trade treaty and hence begin a new exciting era after a long isolationist history.
Wu (James Hong), the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., seemingly assisted by David Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a successful Chinese entrepreneur, have been working hard to promote the pact with U.N. Secretary General Thomas (Donald Sutherland). What sets off a bizarre chain of events is the creepy sight of a group of murdered Chinese refugees, found in a container in New York harbor by agent Cappella (Maury Chaykin).
An important U.N. meeting with speeches translated by U.N. employee Julia (Marie Matiko) begins, but Wu is assassinated in the midst of his delivery. FBI agent Neil Shaw (Snipes), working closely with his supervisor, Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), chases the killer in a thrilling sequence.
This intriguing setup occurs in the first reel, which, regrettably, is followed by a lengthy and disjointed espionage-conspiracy tale, undermined by awkward cutting between action and dialogue scenes, some of which try to explain the title. (“The Art of War” is an ancient handbook by Sun Tsu, a powerful Asian general who believed that wars can be won without ever having to actually fight.) As a result of these problems, actioner assumes the shape of a roller-coaster ride that’s interrupted so many times the joy is almost killed.
It’s not that yarn lacks story or characters — it has plenty of both. For a while, just figuring out the tangled, ever-changing relationships and coalitions provides some fun. Working with an elite team of covert agents who are so deeply classified they don’t officially exist, Shaw is a potentially exciting action hero: A Buddhist, which colors his outlook on the world, and a martial arts expert, with plenty of opportunities to demonstrate both his mental acuity and physical prowess.
Shaw is contrasted with Bly (Michael Biehn), the team’s intense but more playful partner, who relates to his risky job as a game. Knowing that the government perceives them as necessary weapons — rather than humans with feelings — the duo execute their tasks while ignoring the dubious reasoning and appalling machinations that define international politics.
Following generic conventions, yarn arranges for Shaw to team up with the beautiful Julia. Ultimately, she is the only person he can really trust and also the one person who may be holding the key to a global conspiracy of cataclysmic proportions that threatens the very existence of the U.N.
No contempo thriller-actioner can ignore the high-tech world, and this pic is no exception. Indeed, soon all the protagonists are after a disc that, played in slo-mo, reveals evidence about the circumstances in which Wu was murdered while Chan was seated next to him.
Like any other summer blockbuster, “Art of War” has its fair share of gun-blazing mayhem and lurid violence. Artistically, pic lies uncomfortably between John Woo’s stylishly extravagant actioners and Jerry Bruckheimer’s more conventional fare. In its messy structure and insistently chaotic loud score, the film is closer to the latter, yet some sequences approximate the cool elegance of the more impressive Hong Kong actioners.
Duguay gives the film an erratic tempo, with several crucial sequences coming out of the blue. Brisk pacing can conceal only up to a point helmer’s crude approach, writing flaws and especially choppy editing.
Despite some effectively rousing set pieces, particularly in the long corridors of the U.N. building, “The Art of War” is ultimately much less than the sum of its parts.
A talented ensemble elevates the actioner at least a notch or two above the material’s level. Snipes, also credited as one of the exec producers, is most credibly and appealingly cast as the “invisible” hero, in a part that enables him to show dramatic acting as well as martial arts skills.
It’s nice to see Archer, for years typecast as the long-suffering wife, play a different, tougher role. In the small, underdeveloped part of a bewildered U.N. secretary general, the versatile Sutherland commands attention, and so does Canadian character thesp Chaykin, playing the only role that contains some humor, an element otherwise missing from the proceedings.