"The Art of War" marks the return of actor Wesley Snipes to the action arena, which he last visited in the 1998 vampire-actioner "Blade". Unfortunately, this latest starring vehicle should have been sent direct-to-video, with its messy direction by helmer Christian Duguay ("Screamers") and an unimpressive cliché-ridden script from Wayne Beach ("Murder at 1600"). Even die-hard Snipes fans or hard-core action aficionados will find themselves driven to the exit doors of the theater with the ludicrous plot mechanics and hammy dialogue found in this artless offering.
The plot of "The Art of War" revolves around the activities of covert United Nations operative Neil Shaw (Snipes), who is sent on James Bond-style missions in exotic locales by his boss Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer of "Rules of Engagement"), who acts under the guidance of peace-mongering U.N. Secretary General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland of "Space Cowboys"). In his latest mission, he finds himself caught in a web of intrigue preceding a momentous U.N.-brokered trade agreement between China and the West, bringing many decades of isolationist foreign policy to an end and opening China's billion-strong population to the world market. Ambassador Wu (James Hong, who was heard in "Mulan") and businessman David Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa of "Snow Falling on Cedars") have been working hard on behalf of the Chinese government to represent their country's interests in the deal.
However, during a lush banquet held in New York, Wu is shot dead in mid-speech, which turns Shaw's world completely upside-down. Suspected by FBI investigator Cappella (Maury Chaykin of "Entrapment") of being the gunman, Shaw is forced underground on a long and winding search for the real assassin. Also along for the ride is U.N. Chinese translator Julia (Marie Matiko of "The Corruptor"), whose friend was killed as an innocent bystander during the fray, and is the only witness who can clear Shaw's name. Unfortunately, as the unlikely pair delves further into the conspiracy aimed at derailing the trade agreement, they discover that it runs deep, both within the Chinese underworld and the administration of the United Nations.
The most noticeable shortfall of "The Art of War" is the film's uninteresting and unintelligible script. With no real character development in the story, and the arbitrary motivations which seem go guide its cast of characters, the script serves only as a canvas for the story's convoluted plot mechanics, which is at best, a middling thriller about international political intrigue. The bulk of the dialogue is either blatant exposition, to help the audience keep up with the confusing story, or pointless posturing, to create some semblance of tension between the otherwise one-dimensional characters. With such mediocre material to work with, it's not surprising that there's little acting going on here either.
However, the most conspicuous aspect of the script is how it palpably throws in almost every bad action movie cliché into the mix. Some examples of this dubious achievement found within "The Art of War" include:
Stupid script aside, helmer Duguay (who has been tapped to direct "Terminator 3") seems to be out of his element in terms of his direction of the film. The film's action sequences are a disorienting jumble of muddled images as he places the camera too close to the action and cuts far too quickly between shots, thereby making it difficult to follow the action. The director also seems to have a fetish for crane shots, as he uses them repeatedly, sometimes within the same scene, for no explicable dramatic reason. Even the "Matrix"-like CGI enhancements in the film's final gun battle can't hide the fact that Duguay still has a lot to learn in his sad attempt at imitating John Woo ("Mission: Impossible 2").
If it were not for the participation of Snipes, "The Art of War" probably would have languished among the other dozens of B-quality action films released straight-to-video each year, which usually star Ice-T or Christopher Lambert. But with the star power of its lead actor, the producers (which include Snipes) are hoping to make a quick buck on such a shoddy product before becoming tainted by bad press and poor word-of-mouth. The safest bet would be to ignore "The Art of War"-- anything else would only be encouraging more of the same.