Principal Cast : Wesley Snipes, Maury Chaykin, Marie Matiko, Anne Archer, Donald Sutherland, Ron Yuan, Michael Biehn, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Liliana Komorowska, James Hong, Paul Hopkins, Glen Chin, Bonnie Mak, Uni Park, Fernando Chien.
Synopsis: UN’s secretary general uses covert operations to help diplomacy along. Shaw’s called back 6 months after one such operation. He witnesses the murder of Chinese UN ambassador at UN, NYC, chases the assassin and ends up a suspect.
With its title based on ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s guide to warfare, Christian Duguay’s energetic but fatally flawed actioner The Art of War sees a motionful block of lumber in Wesley Snipes (coming off an insanely successful box-office decade culminating with the hugely popular Blade), cavorting through New York City as he tries to clear his name in the assassination of a Chinese Ambassador. Boasting solid late 90’s production values, cinematography and editing, the latter of which is egregiously confusing almost all the time, The Art of War is the kind of B-movie you’d feature in a double bill with, say the Fugitive sequel, loaded up with “oh, it’s that guy” casting and a slick, Joel Silver-esque production value. The main plot is a complete nonsense, hidden by a MacGuffin not even Donald Sutherland’s geriatric UN Secretary general character can salvage, while the likes of Anne Archer, Michael Biehn and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, as well as a bumbling Maury Chaykin, all seem to be in on the joke the film’s action-lite antics perform to invigorate the viewer.
Snipes plays a US undercover operative framed for the murder of Chinese Ambassador Wu (James Hong) just prior to the announcement of an important UN-backed trade agreement. On the run, he uses young translator Julia Fang (Marie Matiko) to uncover the clues as the identity of the real killer, with FBI Agent Capella (Maury Chaykin) in hot pursuit. With his only trusted contact (and assistant to the UN Secretary General) Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer) on his side, Agent Shaw brings all the major players out into the sunlight in a rabbit-warren of double crosses, espionage and high octane action. Director Duguay’s work in this film personifies cinema of the new millennium. The sweaty Die Hard action genre of the Nineties was soon to give way to the uber-slick colour-corrected high-concept over-the-top work of the Y2K era, and The Art of War uniquely mixes both aspects of the changing genre aesthetic to produce a film that’s respectably made, typically exciting for a film of this vintage, and always entertaining in the schlockiest, most dated ways possible. Wesley Snipes has the screen charisma of pudding, his co-star Marie Matiko is suitably supple and exotic (the film pauses for a completely unnecessary sequence in which the young woman is forced to strip naked…), and the gaggle of higher profile names around them all work well in harmoniously silly concert as the film’s flimsy-as-hell plot and coincidence-ridden script draw large amounts of suspension of disbelief before all is said and done. The film’s hyper-violence does lack the raw punch of more modern genre entries, but there’s enough blood, bodies and boobies to satisfy any pulp fiction aficionado.
The film sets up its premise well, has a satisfying number of action setpieces that deliver pretty slick excitement, and slides down as well as popcorn thrills generally go. Hardly iconic, yet oddly satisfying in a lowbrow kind of way, the expected plot twists lean far too heavily into contrivance, before a risible “here’s my stupid plan” revelation from the Bad Guy reveal ruins much of the film’s cathartic denouement. Oddly, the film’s first three quarters are quite good, before things descend into utter nonsense, almost as if the screenwriters changed their mind just prior to filming – you won’t see the film’s Big Reveal coming and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but if you just go with it anyway you’ll still have a fun time. Solid, if undemanding, action entertainment.