Taking its title from the ancient Sun Tsu handbook on passive warfare, "The Art of War" stars Wesley Snipes as Neil Shaw, a covert operative for a top secret United Nations spy team charged with furthering world peace through espionage. Insuring that an impending trade summit between the U.S. and China goes off without a hitch seems like an easy enough assignment, until the Chinese ambassador is assassinated with cameras rolling. Even worse, the incident has been orchestrated so as to frame Shaw for the killing, forcing him into a kind of "Fugitive" scenario in which he must solve the case while also clearing his name.
A host of stock characters soon join the fray, including the obligatory "reluctant female companion" (a Chinese journalist/translator played by Marie Matiko) as well as the "always one step behind FBI agent," played refreshingly low-key by Maury Chaykin. Rounding out the cast is Donald Sutherland as the U.N. Secretary General, Anne Archer as Snipes' boss, Michael Biehn as a fellow spy and Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa as a powerful Hong Kong business magnate. It's a mostly formulaic exercise that might have ended up lost somewhere in the back of a corner video store if not for the involvement of Snipes, who made the film something of a pet project, helping attract such talent as director Christian Duguay (TV's "Joan of Arc"). Duguay's set pieces, in fact, are the best things about the movie--visually arresting interludes between prolonged bouts of narrative ennui. When the action stops, the film grinds to a halt, leaving the cast to fumble with dialogue so bad that the interceding action scenes start to seem like recurring apologies for what precedes them.
Impressively, Snipes survives the debacle with dignity, almost single-handedly elevating the film around him by sheer force of his personality. In the end, it's a lost cause but the effort does not go unnoticed. Starring Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko, Anne Archer, Maury Chaykin, Donald Sutherland, Michael Biehn and Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa. Directed by Christian Duguay. Written by Wayne Beach and Simon Davis Barry. Produced by Nicolas Clermont. A Warner Bros. release. Action-thriller. Rated R for strong violence, some sexuality, language and brief drug content. Running time: 117 min