When are the writers of these throw-away action/suspense thrillers going to learn that if you only give the audience one option as to who the bad guy really is, it's really not much of a surprise at all when he turns out to be the one you suspected all along? This is one of many problems facing moviegoers in Wesley Snipes' latest, The Art of War.
Snipes is the mysterious United Nations super-secret agent Shaw, a sort of James Bond type, except without the savour faire. The plot revolves around a Chinese/U.N. Trade Agreement and a shadowy faction that wants it stopped. Donald Sutherland, Anne Archer, and Michael Biehn fill out the cast, but are mostly wasted. Sutherland's talent is completely squandered as the U.N. inspector General trying to push the trade agreement forward. It's too bad, too. Sutherland, who is generally top notch in both small roles (Backdraft, Kelly's Heroes) and large ones (Invasion of th Body Snatchers, Space Cowboys) is given almost nothing to do here. Likewise, Anne Archer is usually very good (Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger) but here just seems tired and distracted, almost like she's thinking about some other movie the whole time. Or maybe she's just doubting the wisdom of this career choice. Biehn (The Abyss, Aliens) at least shows some personality, but is, overall, just bad. Of all the principles, Snipes (Blade, Murder at 1600), is the most watchable, but even his charisma is not enough to keep my interest in this movie.
Some of the most distracting parts of the movie involve an FBI agent named Capella, played by veteran character actor Maury Chaykin. Chaykin is one of those actors whose name doesn't ring a bell, but his face does. You might remember him as the disturbed officer who sends Kevin Costner to his outpost on the western frontier shortly before shooting himself in Dances With Wolves. He's had over seventy TV and film appearances including Mystery, Alaska and The Mask of Zorro, so you would assume that he would have this kind of thing down. Maybe he had trouble handling the slightly larger role than usual, because it was almost as though he was only just remembering his lines at the last minute. I guess he was supposed to be the head detective on the case, but he always seemed like he was just hanging around, loitering. And I'm not talking about the "Columbo" effect of a disheveled, seeeminlgly confused detective who keeps his razor-sharp skills hidden under a wrinkly overcoat. This guy was just genuinely rumpled and bewildered. He seemed lost as though he were expecting to be in an entirely different movie. Maybe that was the comic relief... Hmmmmm.
I believe in suspension of disbelief as much as the next guy, but when a movie fails to capture my interest, all bets are off. Why use your car as a battering ram, when you could easily open the door? Why smash a sliding cabinet door with the butt of your gun to get at the contents inside? To look cool? Because you're in a hurry? It just comes off as tired. Since the first movie cowboy leaped from a balcony to his horse, Hollywood has been trying to convince us that, if you're an action hero, you can jump from almost anywhere and come out without a scratch. If the movie's a good one, I'll play along, but I draw the line at third story leaps onto concrete. I think the director had seen The Matrix, one too many times, even to the point of blatantly stealing special effects. Unfortunately, elements that made sense in the fantasy world of The Matrix just seem jarring here.
I will admit, there were some cool gadgets. Tiny binoculars, tracking devices and the like. And the opening scene has a pretty good fight sequence and some fun Mission Impossible style stunts. Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.
In a movie like this one, this Trade Agreement thing should be used only as a framework for the action. Unfortunately, the screenwriters were much more excited about their plot device than the audience will be. Way too much time is given over to discussing the ins and outs of the intricate, overly political negotiations. The director, too, was overcome with the importance of his subject matter, which doesn't feel very important at all. The music soars and the camera pulls back wide and comes in very close, all to capture the gravity of the events going on onscreen.
This movie is, in a word, boring; the kiss of death for an action movie. Oh yeah, it's also silly. Improbable stunts. Badly written characters. Wasted actors and a waste of time. There is one good surprise in this highly predictable plot, but by the time it arrives you're just too numbed to care.
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