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The Baltimore Sun

The Art of War


Friday August 25, 2000

     It seems an odd question to propose about a gifted actor whose name is above the title in a major studio release, but seeing "The Art of War" makes you want to raise your hand and ask: "Whatever happened to Wesley Snipes?"
     It's not that Snipes hasn't been busy or successful. His "Blade," the publicity boasts, has grossed more than $150 million worldwide, and before that there have been films like "U.S. Marshals," "Money Train," "Drop Zone," "Demolition Man" and "Passenger 57."
     But like "The Art of War," where Snipes plays a covert operations type working for the U.N., those are largely the modern equivalents of B-pictures, relatively inexpensive genre items in which the action is brisk and reliable but the dramatic moments are close to nonexistent.
     Snipes no doubt has his reasons for sticking closely to those types of roles, but audience members who remember his exceptional work in more substantial films like "The Waterdance" and "White Men Can't Jump," not to mention his involvement as a producer on "Down in the Delta" and the thoughtful documentary "John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk," can't help but miss his appearance in more emotionally resonant material.
     For, even in as insubstantial a film as "The Art of War," Snipes' charisma and skill are much in evidence. Even if action is his genre of choice, there have to be more involving scripts than this, just as there are more involving off-genre vehicles than his choices of "The Fan," "One Night Stand" and "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar."
     Named for Sun Tsu's famous book of military strategy, "The Art of War" is typical of what Snipes has been doing lately. Written by Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry and directed by Canadian Christian Duguay, it's very much a standard brand, alternating acceptable action sequences with unconvincing plotting and characterization that pretty much just mark time until the chases and shooting start up again.
     "The Art of War" begins with a faux-James Bond set piece where agent Neil Shaw (Snipes) crashes a glitzy Hong Kong New Year's Eve party given by international businessman Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) in the top floor of a skyscraper high above the busy city.
     After subtly blackmailing a North Korean general into returning to the peace table, Shaw beats up on a number of martial arts foes before making a most dramatic exit with mission accomplished. "How," asks grateful U.N. Secretary-General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland on automatic pilot), "do you give a medal to someone who doesn't exist for something that didn't happen?"
     Shaw, it turns out, has other skills as well. He can pick handcuffs with stray pieces of metal, snap evildoers' necks if the situation demands and even read the auras of crime scenes to figure out what happened before he got there. But because he takes beaucoup physical risks without so much as a health plan, Shaw is thinking of retiring after that exhausting Hong Kong escapade.
     His immediate superior, U.N. head of covert operations Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), wants him for one more job, planting a wire on Ambassador Wu (James Hong), a Chinese diplomat visiting the United States to sign a major free trade pact. It should be a walk in the park, but, true story, it's not.
     Soon enough Shaw finds himself a suspect in a major crime, with crotchety FBI Agent Capella (Maury Chaykin) eager to arrest him and no one on his side but suspicious (albeit gorgeous) U.N. translator Julia Fang (Marie Matiko). Not even better health insurance would make up for a fix like that.
     Duguay, a cinematographer for a decade before turning to directing, has put the most passion and craft into the action parts of "The Art of War," relegating everything else to second place. Overly plotted and too coincidence-ridden for a story that's basically about nothing, this is a film that almost is not there. It is hardly the worst project Snipes has been in, but wouldn't it be nice to come out of a theater and say it's his best? Everyone, the actor most of all, deserves as much.

The Art of War, 2000. R, for strong violence, some sexuality, language and brief drug content. Morgan Creek Productions Inc. and Franchise Pictures and Amen Ra Films present a Filmline International production, released by Warner Bros. Director Christian Duguay. Producer Nicolas Clermont. Executive producers Elie Samaha, Dan Halsted, Wesley Snipes. Screenplay Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry, story by Wayne Beach. Cinematographer Pierre Gill. Editor Michel Arcand. Music Normand Corbeil. Production design Anne Pritchard. Running time: 1 hour,57 minutes. Wesley Snipes as Neil Shaw. Anne Archer as Eleanor Hooks. Maury Chaykin as Capella. Marie Matiko as Julia Fang. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as Chan. Michael Biehn as Bly.

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