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The Art of War   D+

Warner Bros. Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Christian Duguay
Writers: Wayne Beach, Simon Davis Barry
Cast: Wesley Snipes, Anne Archer, Maury Chaykin, Marie Matiko, Michael Biehn, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Donald Sutherland.

Review by Rob Vaux

"What the hell is going on?" someone asks towards the end of The Art of War, a sentiment no doubt shared by everyone viewing it. Though clearly an effort to emulate Tom Clancy-type political thrillers, it gets caught in a morass of overly-complicated plot twists and by-the-numbers action scenes. The name refers to Sun Tzu's famous text on military philosophy, which is supposed to connect to the film's story of a looming cold war between America and China. But director Christian Duguay lacks the savvy to pull off such a complicated subject. Unfortunately, he tries anyway, turning what could have been a decent action film into a great big mess.

The only hope we have is the middling star power of Wesley Snipes, playing a sort of UN James Bond who gets caught on the wrong side of a double cross. Snipes has clearly settled on the B-action film as his genre of choice: his physical skills are impressive enough, and he's shown a lot of charisma in past action roles (notably his chiseled death machine in Blade and his giggling psychopath in Demolition Man). Duguay, however, doesn't have the first idea what to do with him -- which, when saddled with an ungainly story about trade relations and political power plays, eliminates any chance of the star pulling the movie out of the fire.

The crux of the plot involves a new economic treaty between China and the west. When the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations is assassinated at a dinner party, it throws the treaty into doubt, along with China's amiable goodwill with her potential partners. The Secretary-General (Donald Sutherland, paying the rent) wants to play peace broker, which would enhance his status and make the UN "a global power." Meanwhile, Snipes gets stuck taking the fall for the assassination, making him a moving target to all sorts of shadowy types. While dodging bad guys and kicking the requisite amount of ass, he searches vainly for a way to clear himself, while a pretty Asian translator (Marie Matiko) tags along as a stock romantic interest.

The material lacks zest from the get go: trade agreements and UN settlements lack the sexiness of, say, nuclear terrorists attempting to blow up New York. With a talented filmmaker, however, it could be made engaging, even memorable. Sadly, The Art of War has no one like that involved. Under the lackluster direction (and a formulaic screenplay by Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry) the story quickly becomes muddled past the point of recognition. What we're left with instead is Snipes, who's desperately treading water, and the perverse curiosity of watching Michael Biehn (playing Snipes' predictably doomed partner) pull himself up from post-Cameron obscurity. Neither of them has enough to make things interesting, or clarify the confusion past a remedial good guys/bad guys stage.

The action scenes seem as tired as the politics. Although there are a few efforts to throw in some Bond-type flourishes (and Snipes gets a chance to strut his stuff), they never come off with any style or energy. Everything is gloomy and dark, and the conflicts lack any sense of focus. They merely plod along, going through the motions like an old security guard and depending solely on the confused plot to move forward. All of the villains seem to be Chinese, which borders the neo-racism of Rising Sun, yet the film also condemns the right-wing foes of closer Sino-American ties, typical of its muddled philosophy. By the end of the first reel, we're well past caring, and have nothing left to do but watch the clock run out.

Political thrillers depend both on an attention to detail and a proper panache to make them interesting. The Art of War has neither of these things; just a second-rate director and a star who really should have known better. While there's enough here to keep it from becoming truly awful, it doesn't contain anything that a thousand other action flicks haven't shown us. Sun Tzu believed that becoming predictable would lead to disaster. Apparently, the creators of The Art of War couldn't be bothered to take him to heart.

Review published 09.04.2000.

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