Don't be misled by its title. "The Art of War" sounds intriguing, but
the actual film is just another glossy B-movie thriller, the kind of
forgettable action fare that turns up at odd hours on TV with titles
like "Strike Force," "Terminal Impact," or "Deadly Velocity." Besides
Wesley Snipes' charisma, the most interesting facet of this production
is its peculiar outlook on the capacities of the human body.
During most of "The Art of War," gravity is, at best, an inconvenience.
When chased by an opponent, characters routinely leap off the top of
tall buildings, plummeting hundreds of feet only to emerge unscathed.
Apparently, the trick is to use glass ceilings of adjacent structures to
break your fall. In the absence of a glass roof, simply tuck and roll
just before hitting the concrete far below. And don't worry about broken
glass. Although it makes a great sound while shattering, it will not cut
Important safety tip: These rules apply only until the climactic battle
scene. During the-fight-to-end-all-fights, a 10-foot-fall will knock the
combatants into a stupor and a shard of glass can prove deadly (but only
to a bad guy).
Originally intended as a Jet Li vehicle, the story begins in Hong Kong
at a lavish party on December 31, 1999 (I wonder how long this lil' epic
sat on the shelf). China is finally ready to sign a trade treaty, with
United Nations Ambassador Wu (James Hong) and his assistant David Chan
(Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) working closely with U.N. Secretary General
Thomas (Donald Sutherland) on the historic agreement.
Meanwhile, a group of dead Chinese refugees are discovered packed away
at the New York harbor by wheezy Agent Cappella (Maury Chaykin).
Cut to the U.N., where Wu is assassinated while delivering his key
speech. FBI Agent Neil Shaw (Snipes) leaps into action, chasing the
killer off several rooftops. It turns out that there is an elaborate
scheme to block the treaty, one that soon draws in Shaw, his
wisecracking partner Bly (Michael Biehn), their boss, Eleanor Hook (Anne
Archer) and U.N. translator Julia (Marie Matiko).
Readers concerned about plot descriptions that give away the ending of a
film have nothing to fear in this review. The convoluted storyline is so
confusing that I couldn't explain all the twists and turns even if I
wanted to. Basically, Agent Shaw spends 117 minutes chasing bad guys or
being chased by both good and bad guys, pausing only long enough to drag
poor Julia into the fray.
Director Christian Duguay seems far more concerned with style than
substance, devoting most of his attention to fights, flights and
gadgets. In fact, a way-cool palm sized computer gets almost as much
screen time as Snipes.
After roughly an hour of struggling to keep up with the plot, I
surrendered and simply tried to enjoy the excesses of the production. On
a guilty pleasure level, there are moments to savor.
Like the scene where Agent Cappella states, "So our boy gets rescued by
the Triad, pops one in the melon and turns the rest into Chinese salsa."
Who says that quality film writing is dead?
Or the early segment where Agent Shaw parachutes off the top of a
skyscraper. A bad guy leans over the edge and uses a machine gun to cut
the chute in half right down the middle, forcing Shaw to make one of his
dazzling tuck and roll landings. Now, to split a parachute in half from
above, the bullets must be aimed directly at the top of Shaw's head, but
somehow, he manages to land without a scratch. I guess top-notch FBI
agents come equipped with bulletproof hair.
Despite the tsunami of illogic, Wesley Snipes plays it straight and the
talented actor projects an appealing James Bond vibe. Several supporting
players also show some flair, although the overloaded screenplay allows
scant time for any of them to shine.
Compared to most of the utter dreck released this August, "The Art of
War" was easy to sit through. Remember, though, that due to my job, I
don't have to pay to see this stuff. For those who must shell out
hard-earned cash for movies, I suspect the minor pleasures of this one
will be best enjoyed on a TV screen at home, where it should turn up in
three to four months tops. In the meantime, stick with films like "The
Matrix," where invulnerable heroes making gravity-defying leaps remain
in a fantasy world more appropriate to their superhuman skills.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott