1 item from 2000
Falling into a welcome niche that lies between agile, frenetic Hong Kong actioners and the preposterous bloat of a James Bond movie, "The Art of War" is a kinetic, wall-to-wall action movie that puts the fun back into a genre that is going stale fast. And Wesley Snipes, whose company co-
produced this film, has found in the movie's hero a character who fits him like a well-tailored suit: Neil Shaw, a taciturn, tenacious and ruthlessly proficient thinking-man's spy who never cracks a smile and has no past and, perhaps, no future.
Directed by Christian Duguay, "War" emerges as a highly charged late-season entry that could blow a hole in the current summer boxoffice doldrums. Snipes' name assures the support of his considerable fan base and solid marketing by Warner Bros., and word-of-mouth should do the rest. The film also benefits from a nifty title.
That title, of course, refers to the ancient treatise by Sun Tzu, an Asian general whose handbook for victory on the battlefield now serves as a guide for business and politics. All the film's characters -- warring factions prowling New York's treacherous back alleys and the United Nations' even more dangerous corridors -- have seemingly read Sun Tzu. As mind games and double crosses unfold, they quote him constantly and with approval.
Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry's amusingly convoluted screenplay imagines that the United Nations runs a stealth spy operation against its member nations led by Shaw and supported by a skeletal team. So covert is this operation that when the movie opens with a heroic feat by Shaw, the U.N. secretary general (Donald Sutherland) wonders aloud, "How do you give a medal to somebody who doesn't exist for something that didn't happen?"
In that opening sequence, Snipes performs a deadly dance in and around a Hong Kong skyscraper -- a sequence that involves whiz-bang espionage technology, intricately choreographed martial arts fights and a jump off the building -- all of which rivals any James Bond opening.
The plot, completely ludicrous but wonderfully attuned to establishing locales and clearing the way for action, has spies, cops, tongs and an international array of bad guys going nuts in New York over a impending trade treaty to open China to world markets. The assassination of China's U.N. ambassador (the inveterate James Hong) and wounding of a shady tycoon (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) forces Shaw underground when he is accused of the crime.
He can trust no one but must rely on a spunky U.N. translator (Marie Matiko) who doesn't trust him. Maury Chaykin plays an NYPD detective who realizes he's in over his head. Anne Archer plays Shaw's nefarious boss, while Michael Biehn and Liliana Komorowska back up Shaw. There are double crosses and triple crosses and a key line inspired by Sun Tzu: "Appearances are everything -- in politics and deception."
Duguay employs considerable visual trickery -- much of it successfully. There are black-and-white stop-action flashbacks that we come to realize are the film's way of getting into Shaw's head to see how he puts the pieces of the conspiratorial puzzles together in his mind.
Some of the visual razzle-dazzle is over the top, just as Normand Corbeil's music occasionally overwhelms the action, and the stunt people, as good as they are, sometimes cheat a little on their leaps off buildings.
But thanks to a swift pace and great set pieces, the film holds together as it mixes the preposterous with the plausible. Toss in some gratuitous violence and nudity, and you've got a commercial potboiler.
Snipes never fully penetrates the surface of his character, but part of Shaw's mystique is that he's something of a well-oiled machine with the emotional component removed. And Snipes' athleticism and the stunt fighting (designed by Jeff Ward) give the action scenes real snap.
Matiko, who has never starred in a film, is a real up-and-comer -- sexy, smart and quick-witted -- and she holds the screen with Snipes. The other pros in the cast deliver highly serviceable performances, and the below-the-line talent is at the top of their game. Thanks to their work and digital imaging, the movie manages to turn Montreal into both New York and Hong Kong.
THE ART OF WAR
Morgan Creek Prods., Franchise Pictures
and Amen Ra Films present
a Filmline International production
Producer: Nicolas Clermont
Director: Christian Duguay
Screenwriters: Wayne Beach,
Simon Davis Barry
Story: Wayne Beach
Executive producers: Elie Samaha,
Dan Halsted, Wesley Snipes
Director of photography: Pierre Gill
Production designer: Anne Pritchard
Music: Normand Corbeil
Co-producer: Richard Lalonde
Costume designer: Odette Gadoury
Editor: Michel Arcand
Neil Shaw: Wesley Snipes
Eleanor Hooks: Anne Archer
Cappella: Maury Chaykin
Julia Fang: Marie Matiko
Chan: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa
Bly: Michael Biehn
Douglas Thomas: Donald Sutherland
Ambassador Wu: James Hong
Novak: Liliana Komorowska
Running time - 119 minutes
MPAA rating: R
1 item from 2000
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