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Movies
'Art of War, The '

'War' more gore than good story

Saturday, August 26, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Had the filmmakers been more interested in being provocative than in kicking butt, "The Art of War" could have sparked a few tinderboxes.

 
   
"The Art of War"


Rating: R, for strong violence, some sexuality, language and brief drug content.

Players: Wesley Snipes, Donald Sutherland.

Director: Christian Duguay.

Web site: www.artofwarmovie.com

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars

 
 

How's this for a premise? The United Nations runs its own covert operations team, influencing events among and within its member nations in the hopes of averting war and, in the words of Secretary General Douglas Thomas (Donald Sutherland), making the U.N. into "a world power."

In the opening sequences, agent Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes) blackmails a North Korean official into resuming peace talks by threatening to expose his dirty little secrets at a millennium party full of powerful Hong Kong power brokers.

The main plot involves the imminent signing of a Chinese trade agreement that Thomas sees as the crowning achievement of his administration. Naturally, powerful and shadowy forces hope to torpedo the pact.

Thomas instructs his No. 2, Eleanor Hooks, who runs the covert team, to keep things from going wrong. Of course, if anyone found out about the undercover operation, it could seriously harm or even destroy the U.N. Some people, of course, would encourage that (no, Jesse Helms is not represented in the film).

Director Christian Duguay and screenwriters Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry play up the paranoia in a movie where everyone is out to get Shaw. When a key player is assassinated, Shaw is made to look like the culprit and has to figure out the truth to clear himself. Hey, I said it was paranoid, not original.

Along the way, a lot of people die. Some are dispatched in incredibly graphic scenes of violence.

The movie offers several martial-arts faceoffs (trying to mimic "The Matrix" but not in the same league) and more traditional fights in which the combatants seem determined to break every piece of glass in the entire U.N. building.

Duguay may never have met an action-movie cliche he doesn't like, but he keeps up a strong pace. His key visual motif -- a camera that pulls away from the specific action to brood over the cityscapes of New York and Hong Kong, where you see the broad picture instead of the street-level machinations -- amplifies the movie's theme of appearance and deception. (The bulk of the movie was shot in Montreal.)

The director also elicits a few interesting performances from his cast. Snipes, who has pretty much thrown away a promising career in favor of testosterone-enhancing roles, offers a convincing resume for a spot on the Impossible Missions Force. Sutherland wisely underplays the secretary-general's blending of ambition and altruism.

Archer, for once, gets to play a role with some teeth, and she bares them grittily. Maury Chaikin delivers some needed humor as a shaggy FBI agent. Marie Matiko contributes some welcome emotional release as Shaw's unwilling ally, a UN translator whom the bad guys want to kill.

Why they want to kill her so badly isn't exactly clear. I also wondered how someone firing a machine gun can rip Shaw's parachute to shreds without even hitting him.

On the other hand, the movie leaves one big fat clue somewhat early in the proceedings that doesn't take too much brainpower to unravel. Do so, and it becomes obvious who must be behind the evil plot. As for motivation -- well, that's another story. The explanation is there, but it would take another whole convoluted movie to explain. One of those is enough.



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