Do you know who your enemy is?
The name is Snipes…Wesley Snipes.
The coolest man in motion pictures brings his icy charm to this flashy, low-rent espionage thriller. Wesley Snipes (currently on view in Blade 2) keeps you watching as the pretty pictures fly by—which they do with dazzling style and at propulsive speed—but even the Daywalker himself can't entirely redeem this whiz-bang but vacuous post-Cold War political potboiler.
Facts of the Case
Neil Shaw (Snipes) is a covert operative for the United Nations with total deniability—no one knows who he is or what he's up to except his boss (Anne Archer), chief of operations for the Secretary General (Donald Sutherland, who refrains from showing us his bare backside, which has doubtless not improved in the two decades since National Lampoon's Animal House). When a Chinese diplomat is assassinated, Shaw is fingered for the crime and cast to the wolves by the very people for whom he works. On the run, he enlists aid from a couple of unlikely sources: Julia, a young Mandarin translator (Marie Matiko) who witnesses the shooting, and Capella (Maury Chaykin, memorable as always but considerably more slovenly and snaky than his TV Nero Wolfe), a cynical Federal agent who thinks Shaw is into some bad business but doesn't know quite what. By picture's end, Shaw has to navigate a thicket of Chinese organized crime figures, politicos and wheeler-dealers—plus his own traitorous colleagues—to save the day and, not incidentally, his own neck. Bullets fly, bodies fall (including Wesley's in a killer opening-scene stunt worthy of a Bond pic), and Snipes gets to show off the martial arts chops that have served him with distinction in…well…half of the movies he's made in the last decade.
I have to 'fess up here—I dig Wesley Snipes. I even remained alert through most of Mike Figgis' somnolent One Night Stand because Mr. Snipes headlined it. He's the rare actor who can, as in Passenger 57, end up on the business end of a Filmmaking 101 zoom and wring cheers rather than groans from dialogue like "Always bet on black!" (In 57, Wesley's reading matter on his plane flight is—cue that Twilight Zone theme—Sun Tsu's The Art of War.) And he makes a credible and engaging action hero: tough but human, grim but nonchalant, with a sly humor that lets the audience know he thinks the script is a hoot, too. So, not surprisingly. I enjoyed him in The Art of War as a sort of urban and urbane faux 007 who shoots, scuffles, and styles like the Good Commander himself.
The supporting cast are all decent too. Maury Chaykin is fun as the gruff FBI agent who vacillates between adversary and ally. Anne Archer is suitably Machiavellian as Shaw's U.N. supervisor. But the real treat of the film was Marie Matiko, an actress new to me. She and Snipes develop an easy, unforced chemistry, even though they share nothing more than some wistful glances and a considerable amount of derring-do.
Most of the fault here can be laid upon the pedestrian script, which aims for twisty but winds up tangled. I'm sure screenwriters Wayne Beach (who gave the Wes-man an even more paint-by-numbers plot in Murder At 1600) and Simon Davis Barry (who gave the world nothing else of which I'm aware) sold this sucker as "unpredictable," but if you haven't figured out who the bad guys are early on, you should hand in your Crimestoppers Notebook.
The other problem—though it's one of those problems that's also a strength, in a backhanded way—is the direction by Christian Duguay (the auteur behind two sequels to Scanners), who blows through this picture like John Woo after a bender at Starbucks. Duguay whips everything by you so fast we get the idea that he felt if he amped up the clockspeed on the visuals, you'd be out of the theater before you figured out how little sense the script made. To Duguay's credit, they're snazzy visuals; Duguay has a nice eye (he's yet another director who cut his teeth in commercials) and cinematographer Pierre Gill captures the ever-changing scenery beautifully. The film, though, feels over-edited (Michel Arcand lent a similarly hyperactive scissor to Arnold Schwarzenegger in The 6th Day). One can't help wondering if, given that The Art of War blazes along even at just under two hours, some of the scenes that ended up as guitar picks might not have filled in the logical chasms if they'd been left intact. But we'll never know, because none of those missing scenes appear on the DVD.
And let's talk about that DVD, shall we? The film itself looks spectacular in a crisp anamorphic transfer with brilliant colors and rich deep blacks—critical, since much of the action takes place at night. Hints of edge enhancement crop up here and there, and flecks of grain once or twice, but nothing that had me reaching for the Windex. It's not exactly reference quality, but it's darn close. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, on the other hand, is a fine one for impressing your date on movie night: explosions thunder, gunfire (of which there's beaucoups) crackles, and there's plenty enough bump and bluster from the rear speakers and subwoofer to shiver your timbers. My dog hasn't come out from under the bed yet.
Too bad the folks at Warner couldn't be bothered to use any of the rest of the disc space for added content. Must have been the DVD team's afternoon barbecue. Barebones filmographies for director Duguay and a handful of the cast (not even all of the major players) and the film's trailer are the only extras included. Oh, sure, there are also trailers for several movies (described as "great Morgan Creek titles") you couldn't pay me to see, or see again—are there really people out there clamoring for just a taste of Battlefield Earth or Chill Factor, or, heaven help us, Kevin Costner's phantom accent in Robin Hood: Thief of the Filmgoer's Hard-Earned Cash?—but in my book those are detriments, not additions. If you're going to go to the trouble of putting a great transfer on disc, for pity's sake rifle the petty cash and surround it with something. And by the way, Warner Brothers: it's the 21st century. Ditch the snapper case already, you Luddites.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Gotta pick this nit till it bleeds: the film opens at a huge party on New Year's Eve 1999, and there's tons of blather about the beginning of the New Millennium. I'm glad I won't be around in 2099 when my ultra-great-grandchildren mess that thing up yet again. Learn to count to 1000, people: it starts with "1" and ends with three zeros.
Lovers of pretentious action fare will find definitely The Art of War worthy of a rental. Hardcore fans of the Man Called Snipes will teeter between purchasing this and saving up for the release of Blade 2. Since I'm both, it's a narrow "purchase" vote for me. It passes the wristwatch test—I wasn't checking the time even when I was scratching my head.
Warner is sentenced to hard labor tallying Steve Case's annual bonus penny by penny for skimping on the extras. Christian Duguay merits a slap on the wrist and time served for not spending more bucks on rewrites so his script would be worthy of his visual style and decent cast. Wesley Snipes, naturally, daywalks away scot-free, unshaken and unstirred.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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