A scene from 'The Art of War'
Courtesy Photo
** stars 117 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, August 25, 2000
Directed by Christian Duguay

Starring Wesley Snipes, Donald Sutherland, Anne Archer, Marie Matiko, Maury Chaykin, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa & Michael Biehn


Useless action movie retread. Rent "Die Hard" instead.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 12.26.2000


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Snipes returns to action movies as a framed UN black ops agent in staged, nonsensical spy thriller

By Rob Blackwelder

Cool as dry ice, Wesley Snipes comes off a two-year action movie hiatus like a bad-ass, black-belt James Bond with some ghetto in his blood in the opening scene of "The Art of War."

Dressed to the nines for a well-heeled Y2K New Year's Eve party in Hong Kong, he's doing a little workaday blackmailing of Chinese government officials when he is spotted by security and has to kung-fu his way out of there before parachuting off a skyscraper to escape.

Somebody shoots holes in his chute, but while Wes lands safely, the movie crashes face first into the pavement.

From that point on, "The Art of War" becomes a convoluted yarn of international conspiracies thinner than the paper the script is printed on and full of they-can't-be-serious espionage concepts, like that our stoic stud hero is a United Nations black ops agent who does the dirty work of the power-hungry Secretary General (Donald Sutherland).

After a setup like that, I spend the whole movie waiting for black helicopters full of Arian henchmen to swoop down on the UN Plaza and whisk Sutherland off to his secret headquarters in a mountain fortress.

But this movie takes itself way too seriously for that kind of thing, and before long Wes has been double-crossed and finds himself on the run from enemies unknown, framed for the assassination of a Chinese diplomat who was about to sign a momentous trade agreement.

Not that this is a bad idea for a kick-butt spy thriller, but director Christian Duguay ("Screamers") is far too preoccupied with staging over-the-top chases, shootouts and torture scenes (did we really need the close-up of the girl's bloody head being slammed through a mirror?) to bother making sense of the plot.

Long on collusion and short on motive, it's impossible to keep up at all with the vague notions of world trade manipulation being bandied about between gunshots and snapped necks. But while Duguay goes out of his way to make these nonsensical scenes feel heavy, it's clear such things are not his primary concern.

That would be the shootin', fightin', flyin'-through-plate-glass-windows action numbers that are largely predicated on the concept that the whole UN building would have only two security guards on duty at night, giving Snipes and his foes the run of the joint for staging dust-ups aped from Jet Li and John Woo movies.

When the picture does pause for character and plot development, you'll almost wish it hadn't. The dialogue is beyond embarrassing and most of it makes no sense anyway. Ditto for the plot twists.

I know the obligatory tough-cookie-in-distress Snipes is protecting (Marie Matiko) is a sexy young Chinese translator connected to the assassination somehow. I know Anne Archer has something nasty up her sleeve as Wesley's UN contact and Sutherland's corrupt "right hand man," so to speak. She gives some rabid right-wing speech about protecting democracy from itself.

But despite attempts to at least give "The Art of War" a similar look and feel to "Mission: Impossible" and/or "Ronin," this flick has little in common with such adrenaline-driven intrigue thrillers, both of which at least had some discernable cohesion upon multiple viewings.

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