One hates to speculate about people's motives, but looking at the relentless career of Wesley Snipes -- 25 films as an actor since his breakout performance in New Jack City, half a dozen credits as a producer in the past five years -- one begins to wonder if he's driven by fear. It's harder to hit a moving target.
And Snipes isn't just fast, he's shifty. In an odd way, he's the black Bruce Willis, though he's even less easily pigeonholed -- a taciturn action hero in Blade and Passenger 57 and Drop Zone, a motor-mouthed comic in White Men Can't Jump, a romantic leading man in One Night Stand and Jungle Fever.
Bad taste As someone who likes Snipes, I wish he had better taste. He seems to be unable to say no, and the result is a career cluttered with more junk than most stars of his stature. When an actor has worked with directors like Spike Lee, Mike Figgis and Ron Shelton, films like Money Train, U.S. Marshalls, Murder At 1600, Drop Zone, The Fan and his latest, The Art Of War, are doubly disappointing.
In The Art Of War, which is tangentially related to Sun-Tzu's classic work of military philosophy, Snipes is Shaw, a super-secret agent for the UN who runs around jumping off buildings and kung-fuing his way through snazzy receptions, the better to blackmail corrupt foreign leaders for his boss, the duplicitous Anne Archer. She's trying to keep things in line for her boss, the secretary-general (Donald Sutherland, whose character worries that he's going to become "another one of those Canadian peacekeepers").
The Art of War, directed by Canadian hack Christian Duguay, was written by Wayne Beach, who also wrote Murder At 1600, and executive-produced by Snipes, which suggests that it's part of his ongoing search for a franchise character. Since it's unlikely that Hollywood will ever come up with an African-American James Bond, he wants to build his own. It also suggests that Snipes had a degree of control, so he should get a bunch of the blame.
The film opens like a Bond movie that couldn't afford to go skiing, with Snipes crashing a big Y2K party in Hong Kong and leaving it by leaping off a tall building and parachuting to relative safety. Eventually, the real plot kicks in: someone murders the Chinese ambassador to the UN to jeopardize a big trade agreement that will give western companies access to a billion and a half Chinese consumers.
Snipes heads off in pursuit of the assassin, only to find that he's been set up by someone to take the fall. And doesn't this sound a lot like Keenen Ivory Wayans' Most Wanted? Or, come to think of it, like Snipes's part in U.S. Marshalls? When you start repeating your failures, your career may be in trouble.
A great action director might have made something of this, but Duguay isn't one. He's the guy who gave us the two Scanners sequels, Screamers and The Assignment, as well as some television features. While he has a decent eye, his action sequences rarely cut together properly. The pulled punches are always visible, and he uses quick, sweeping camera movements and niggling little edits to cover what's missing.
Small budget This may be a function of budget restrictions, a lack of qualified stunt guys, or whatever, but for contemporary action films the bar is set by pictures like Die Hard, The Road Warrior, The Matrix and the most recent Bond movies.
As a mostly Canadian indie, the budget for The Art Of War was probably relatively small, $30 or $40 million, which is simply insufficient to compete with Tomorrow Never Dies.
That deficiency could be balanced by a display of charismatic star power, but Snipes decides to play the whole picture without a glimmer of wit. He's strong enough to get away with that as the vampire superhero Blade, but if he's going to be the American Bond, he might occasionally look as if he's enjoying himself rather than nursing a bad cold. Chasing bad guys through alleys and blowing up cars is meant to be fun.
THE ART OF WAR, directed by Christian Duguay, produced by Nicolas Clermont, written by Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry, with Wesley Snipes, Anne Archer, Michael Biehn, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Donald Sutherland. 100 minutes. Opens Friday (August 25). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 74. A TVA International release. Rating: NN