Tag Archives: C

THE ART OF WAR

Despite a title lifted from Sun Tzu’s famous manual of military strategy (which is further cited in the dialogue), there’s precious little true artistry and not much tactical vision in the new Wesley Snipes vehicle from Christian Duguay. “The Art of War” wants to be complex and snappy, but ends up messy and mostly turgid instead. The convoluted but silly plot, fashioned by Wayne Beach (who also helped pen Snipes’ earlier disappointment, “Murder at 1600”) and Simon Davis Barry, involves an American agent, working sub rosa for the United Nations, who’s implicated in the assassination of the Chinese ambassador to the U.N. and so must solve the crime while on the run. There’s a hint of “North by Northwest” in the setup (and in the ultimate resolution, too), but while Hitchcock’s classic had incomparable style and the master’s distinctively light touch, Duguay turns the conspicuously complicated piece into a murky potboiler filled with mostly stock characters and punctuated by often brutal action scenes, some (at the beginning and end) involving lots of chop-socky stuff. Throughout the director indulges in pointlessly complex camerawork, extravagant crane shots and overhead perspectives that engender vertigo more often than they catch the eye; overall it’s a rough trip for those whose stomachs are easily unsettled. And the denouement leaves more than a few plot holes unfilled.

Snipes, who’s really too fine an actor to be so frequently stuck in solemnly heroic roles like this one, plays Neil Shaw, one of those “Mission Impossible” sort of operatives who’s effectively non-existent for reasons of deniability. The odd twist in this case is that he works not for any government but for a secret covert ops unit of the U.N., taking his orders from old Cold Warrior Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), who’s the chief aide to ambitious Secretary General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland). (One of the peculiarities of the scenario is that it portrays the U.N. as trying to become a “world power”–which should feed the conspiratorial fears of One Worlders in the audience. Maybe Thomas is also a member of the Trilateral Commission.) The Secretary has negotiated a trade treaty between the U.S. and China, but when a group of Chinese illegal immigrants are found dead in New York harbor and the Chinese ambassador to the U.N., the chief architect of the pact, is murdered, things begin to fall apart. Shaw is fingered for the shooting, but escapes; unfortunately his former fellow spies Bly (Michael Biehn) and Novak (Liliana Komorowska) have been rubbed out, and so he’s forced to work with the one person who believes in his innocence–a Chinese U.N. staff member with the strange name of Julia Fang (Marie Matiko), who saw the killer and swears it wasn’t Shaw. The convoluted narrative also involves a Chinese mogul with uncertain motives (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a dyspeptic FBI agent (Maury Chaykin) and various members of Chinese gangs who show up and do their dastardly whenever plot turns demand it without much explanation. The narrative winds its way along without a lot of rhyme or reason (and it ends with much of the confusion unresolved), but it offers ample opportunities for big, exuberantly staged chases, fights and explosions; some of them ape the stylized approach of such Hong Kong helmers as the great John Woo, but Duguay is a far less imaginative craftsman of mayhem, and after a while the periodic bursts of aggression get awfully stale. It doesn’t help matters that the ultimate source of the villainy is fairly apparent quite early on, despite the surfeit of red herrings dispatched to obscure it. And apart from Chaykin’s shrewd performance as the often-befuddled FBI man, the film is sorely lacking in the humor which might have made it more appealing (although one hopes that the director is tweaking his own ostentatiously flamboyant style at a point late in the narrative when he prominently features a Chinese bakery called the Lo Kee).

“The Art of War” will probably find an opening-week audience hungry for action and rake in a few fast dollars, but in retrospect it doesn’t make much sense. Still, Snipes’ screen presence and the picture’s dark, glistening surface make it somewht more watchable than a lot of the other flicks filling the multiplexes at the moment.

ME, MYSELF AND IRENE

Jim Carrey here teams up with the Farrelly brothers for the
first time since they all struck gold with the two-stooges
comedy “Dumb and Dumber” in 1994, but this time around co-star
Jeff Daniels has been jettisoned and the rubber-faced (and
bodied) star takes both roles himself. The conceit of the
script (written a decade ago and now refurbished for today’s
audiences) is that Carrey plays Charlie Baileygates, a mild-
mannered Rhode Island state trooper who, as a result of years
of inordinate meekness, develops an alternate personality, the
randy, aggressive, foul-mouthed Hank. When Charlie fails to
take his (unnamed) medication, Hank takes over and causes all
sorts of mischief–a circumstance that becomes especially
troublesome when Charlie has to go on the road with Irene
(Rene Zellweger), a tart young thing on the run from a passel
of thugs and crooked cops (the reason behind the chase is
all but impenetrable).

The Farrellys specialize in the deliberately tasteless, of
course, so it’s no great surprise that they should make a
serious medical condition little more than a cheap springboard
for slapstick. (People suffering from schizophrenia and their
families have already begun to protest, not without
justification.) If you set aside the insensitivity of the
premise, however (which, after all, is the trademark of the
Farrellys), what’s truly surprising is that even with Carrey’s
obviously committed participation (no pun intended), the
writing-directing team hasn’t managed to use it as the basis
for a picture that’s consistently funny. There are random
laughs, to be sure: Charlie has an uproarious encounter early
on with an antagonistic limo driver (Tony Cox) who just happens
to be a dwarf; a running gag involving a cow that Charlie
tries to put mercifully to sleep is amusing; there’s a charming
turn by Michael Bowman as a sad-sack albino waiter; and the
bad-ass personas of Charlie’s three brilliant but gangsta-
mouthed black sons (I won’t explain how they come to be his
boys) make for a wonderful sendup of conventional expectations (
it helps immeasurably that the trio is played with gusto by
Anthony Anderson, Mongo Brownlee and Jerod Mixon).

But most of the fun is on the periphery–the central characters
are never as engaging as they should be, and the chase plot
proves a frail device that doesn’t succeed in bringing them
together as successfully as in earlier road movies (e.g., “It
Happened One Night”). Carrey literally throws himself into the
dual Charlie/Hank role; he indulges in more face-twisting and
physical comedy than he endured in a full season of “In Living
Color.” It’s to little avail, though. Despite a few good
pratfalls (one down a cliff after being kicked, which results
in a nose injury that’s initially humorous but is dragged on
far too long), much of his slapstick evokes groans rather than
laughs; it’s just too violent and bone-crushing to be all that
funny. As for the characters he’s asked to play, the sweet-
natured Charlie has his moments (especially with his sons), but
his dopiness eventually grows grating. As for Hank, he’s just
too obnoxious to be a person you want to spend much time with,
and the level of gross sexual innuendo and cheap potty humor
associated with him is more revolting than risible. The two
personalities’ struggle for control of Carrey’s body in the
last reel was probably intended to be the comic highlight of
the piece, but it’s far too extended and never reaches the
height of inspired lunacy that the comic achieved in a
considerably shorter span in the mens’ room scene of “Liar,
Liar.” Ultimately, Carrey’s turn here resembles Jerry Lewis’
in the original version of “The Nutty Professor” more than
anything else–and that’s no compliment. It certainly lacks
the hint of comic genius that marked Steve Martin’s similar
effort as a man whose body is half-possessed by a dead woman
in 1984’s “All of Me.”

Matters are made worse by the fact that sparks determinedly
refuse to fly between Carrey and co-star Renee Zellweger. The
two got romantically involved during the filming of the picture,
it seems, but none of their personal chemistry comes across
on the screen. That’s probably because Carrey is busy indulging
in one-man slapstick set-pieces while Zellweger is forced mostly
to stand off to the side and look pouty, her face all scrunched
up as though she were smelling something disagreeable. (In
this case, that’s an attitude more suited to the audience.)
Capable performers like Chris Cooper, Richard Jenkins and
Robert Forster are utterly wasted as lawmen, some honest and
others not.

In the final analysis what dooms “Me, Myself and Irene” to
mediocrity is its contrived, mechanical character. The
Farrellys’ previous efforts were deliberately gross and over-
the-top, to be sure, but they all had at their core a certain
innocence, almost sweetness, despite their crudity. This
picture lacks that saving grace. As a result the stream of
sexual vulgarity, toilet humor and nasty slapstick seems
crasser and more calculated than the rude but still almost
naive and so more likable stuff found in “Kingpin” or
“There’s Something About Mary.” Maybe the problem is that the
script is essentially an old idea that shouldn’t have been
resurrected and retooled to meet the expectations of the
Farrellys’ fans; perhaps it was that process that gave “Me,
Myself and Irene” its mostly mean-spirited, occasionally
repugnant and often over-the-edge tone (a sequence toward the
end involving a chicken is a particularly good example of a
gross-out gag that goes too far to be anything but disgusting).
Pushing the envelope is fine, but if you push it too hard and
too leeringly the result can be, as it is here, the cinematic
equivalent of a painful paper cut.