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.