It's extremely difficult to decide which element of "The Art of War" -- the latest action-thriller vehicle for star Wesley Snipes -- is its most annoying. There are just so many to choose from.
Maybe it's the cliché-ridden dialogue thrown at us by screenwriter Wayne Beach (who also penned Snipes' "Murder at 1600") and newcomer Simon Davis Barry.
"There is no free lunch," United Nations Secretary-General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland) tells his assistant, Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer). "You have to pay the piper."
With such wisdom to dispense, it's no wonder that Sutherland -- so relaxed and likable in the current Space Cowboys -- seems absolutely lost here. But that's the way the cookie crumbles (sorry) when the U.N. hires super-secret operatives like the handsome and daring Neil Shaw (Snipes) to do its dirty work, turning him loose to steal classified information with an arsenal of state-of-the-art espionage equipment and to do battle with various elusive baddies.
Or maybe it's the occasionally ludicrous plot that's at fault as it appeals directly to beady-eyed, paranoid conspiracy buffs. Remember all those difficulties the U.S. seems to be having in its trade relations with China? Would you believe they stem from a vast, right-wing conspiracy that allies superpatriots with Triad thugs, and even involves individuals a rational person would consider beyond suspicion?
Don't forget strained symbolism: "The Art of War" is influenced by the ancient military handbook of the same name by Sun Tzu. We're sure the connection exists, mainly because director Christian Duguay (the French-Canadian filmmaker responsible for "Screamers" and the TV miniseries "Joan of Arc") tells us it does. It's less risky than actually demonstrating the correlation. But whatever stretch that homage constitutes is wholly in keeping with a film that has Montreal pose as New York City and attempts to pass off Japanese-American actors (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Marie Matiko) as Chinese characters.
Add to those flaws a gratuitously violent murder scene, one that offers multiple viewings of the same attack. Also factor in Duguay's inability to take advantage of the comic talents of Maury Chaykin, the veteran, Canadian-born character actor who's assigned to the role of Cappella, a portly, slow-moving FBI agent. Always a step behind the criminals, Cappella is given to bouts of self-deprecation.
"This is just like wrestling," he complains at one point. "It's reality mixed with illusion mixed with bullshit mixed with big, scary guys from parts unknown in dire need of psychiatric care." Score one for the script: That sounds like an adequate description of "The Art of War."
To his credit, Duguay opens the film with a quite suspenseful sequence, in which Shaw completes a James Bond-like assignment. The agent sneaks away from a ritzy New Year's Eve party at a Hong Kong high-rise to download information from a laptop computer, then escapes with the help of a fortuitously packed parachute.
Taking a cue or two from Hong Kong action director John Woo, the filmmaker stages some dazzling chase sequences, visceral shoot-outs and arty explosions. Some of the plot's contours are reminiscent of the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, though the rainy atmospherics of several scenes appear to have been borrowed from "Blade Runner."
Snipes shows real presence, and there's convincing chemistry between his character and Julia Fang (Matiko), a U.N. interpreter. Tagawa is likewise believable as a power-hungry Chinese businessman. Too bad Duguay couldn't capitalize on these strong points and excise the silly stuff.