Despite its late summer release date — usually a sign of studio jitters — The Art of War is a mostly well-constructed action flick with a number of flashy, well-choreographed fight and chase scenes. Wesley Snipes stars as Neil Shaw, a supersecret operative of a supersecret “dirty tricks” agency, whose methods are more than a little reminiscent of the Impossible Mission Force.
After a dazzling opening sequence, in which our hero engages in martial arts and all sorts of other whiz-bang stuff that would seem completely at home in any Hong Kong action picture from the early '90s, things slow down briefly to set up the main plot. With the fate of a new U.S.-China trade agreement in the balance, Shaw is fingered for the assassination of a Chinese government bigwig; in no time, he is being chased by cops, triad gangsters, and the FBI — the latter personified by a hangdog agent (Maury Chaykin) who provides most of the comic relief. Shaw teams up with a U.N. interpreter (Marie Matiko) who has unwittingly become involved in this mess of intrigue.
Although Snipes is also one of the film's producers, The Art of War spent some time being tooled as Jet Li's starring debut in an American film. When Li instead made Romeo Must Die, War was rewritten for Snipes. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have been rewritten all that much: The story continues to be a skeleton on which a series of action showpieces have been hung. Kudos to the filmmakers for not feeling obliged to change all of Snipes' dialogue or to transform bunches of major characters, like leading lady Matiko, from Asian to black. (There is only one line that clearly plays off Snipes' ethnicity.) Presumably even the name Neil Shaw is a holdover from the Li version.
Snipes also produced his hit vehicle Blade and The Big Hit, a Kirk Wong action-comedy in which he didn't appear. The addition of The Art of War to his producing credits suggests that he understands the virtues of Hong Kong action cinema better than anyone else in Hollywood, save the Wachowski brothers, who gave us The Matrix, and transplants like John Woo, Jackie Chan, and Terence Chang. The hyperkinetic chase scenes, the graceful physical movement, and the often clever fight shtick all reflect an appreciation of what made the films of Hong Kong's early '90s heyday so refreshing.
While the fights are ingenious, director Christian Duguay doesn't always shoot and edit them in the most effective way. Duguay's work prior to this has hardly been distinguished: Among his recent projects were the TV miniseries about Joan of Arc (not even as good as Luc Besson's The Messenger, which came out shortly thereafter) and Screamers, a bland, by-the-numbers adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story that deserved more inspired treatment. The Art of War is a forward step, but it's disappointing that the cutting and lighting sometimes obfuscate the choreography.
A bigger problem is the sound mix. Even more than usual with this sort of film, The Art of War is noisy: It's filled with action scenes, crowd scenes, party scenes, conversations in the rain. For whatever reason — and perhaps it was merely a projection problem at my particular viewing — the dialogue is repeatedly drowned out or made just barely audible by the effects. At a minimum, this is annoying; when it affects crucial plot points, as it often does, it stirs up audience resentment.
More's the shame, because screenwriters Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry have made an effort, rare in this genre, to plug all the potential plot holes and shore up the story's twists. Every time it appears that the bad guys know something they shouldn't or have turned up by coincidence or done something that makes no sense, we later find out just why and how. Unfortunately, the explanations are so hard to hear at times that we don't catch on when we should.
While the plot details have been thoroughly thought out, the characters remain thin, and the overall story is no great shakes; it involves reversals and motivations that are sadly just as preposterous as we have grown accustomed to. But that shouldn't dissuade anyone who is attracted to the genre in the first place. As with Blade, Snipes and company have crafted a piece that is fast-moving and filled with hot action; we should be thankful for that.