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(2000) (Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko) (R)

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Action/Adventure/Thriller: Framed for an assassination he didn't commit, a covert American government agent sets out to clear his name and find those who set him up.
Neil Shaw (WESLEY SNIPES) is an American agent working for the United Nations whose assignments are so top secret that neither they nor he officially exist. Teamed with fellow covert agents Bly (MICHAEL BIEHN) and Novak (LILIANA KMOROWSKA) and reporting to chief of security Eleanor Hooks (ANNE ARCHER), Shaw works for U.N. Security General Douglas Thomas (DONALD SUTHERLAND) who's never officially met him.

With China about to sign a new trade agreement with the outside world, Thomas wants things to go smoothly, but a grisly discovery of murdered immigrants has made various officials uneasy. Thus, Hooks assigns Shaw and his team to observe Chinese Ambassador Wu (JAMES HONG) and his billionaire associate, David Chan (CARY-HIROYUKI TAGAWA), whom some believe may be involved in some fashion.

During a U.N. reception, however, Wu is assassinated, and despite Shaw chasing and nearly catching the killer, he's mistakenly captured by the police and FBI supervising agent Frank Cappella (MAURY CHAYKIN) who collectively believe him to be the assassin. When Chinese hitmen abduct Shaw in a deadly attack and then attempt to finish framing him for the murder, however, the agent manages to escape.

Eventually teaming with U.N. translator Julia Fang (MARIE MATIKO) who knows he's innocent but nonetheless reluctant to help him, Shaw attempts to discover who's behind the political conspiracy, all while avoiding various attempts on his life.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Here's today's cinematic pop quiz. Question #1: What's the name of the movie where a man is wrongly imprisoned for a murder he didn't commit, but gets the chance to prove his innocence when he escapes police custody during a transportation accident? Yes, you're right, the answer is "The Fugitive," the 1993 film starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones.

Okay, here's the follow-up question. Name the movie that took that same basic plot and made the accused a covert government agent who uses his spy know-how, high-tech gadgets and physical prowess to prove his innocence all while avoiding a law figure and an Asian thug who are after him. Right again, the answer is 1998's "U.S. Marshals," the Wesley Snipes/Tommy Lee Jones sequel to "The Fugitive."

Finally, here's the last question in today's quiz. What movie then takes all of those elements, recycles the same general story and even has the same star playing the same sort of character? If you guessed this week's release of "The Art of War," you're right, and you'll get bonus points if you then jokingly added that it might as well be called "The Fugitive Rides Again" or something clever like that.

As hard as it is to believe in an industry where no one ever copies previous products (for those of you still distracted by the unannounced pop quiz, that was a touch of sarcasm), Wesley Snipes essentially reprises/replays his bit from "U.S. Marshals," namely being a steely but resourceful covert government agent proficient with high tech gadgets and martial arts fighting techniques, both of which he uses to clear his name and then root out and defeat the bad guys.

While the protagonists in action/adventure-cum-political thrillers usually aren't beatniks or proctologists - although that would certainly add an interesting twist to such films - one would obviously think that Snipes and/or his agent would have noticed the blatant similarities between the films and their characters and thus put on the brakes. Then again, who am I to criticize redundancy (most of us do the same thing day in and day out) and I'm sure the financial offer probably wasn't something worth turning down.

All of that said, the question that remains to be answered is whether the film is any good or entertaining, notwithstanding its complete and utter disregard for originality. After all, despite near directly following in the footsteps of "The Fugitive," its sequel was generally okay. With that in consideration, the movie here wishes to work on two fronts - one as a sophisticated political thriller, the other as a "kick some butt" action flick.

Despite what initially seems like the potential for a decent plot filled with political intrigue, treachery and murder existing on a global scale, director Christian Duguay ("The Assignment," TV's "Joan of Arc") and screenwriters Wayne Beach ("Murder at 1600") and Simon Davis Barry (making his feature debut) never release the safety brakes on the story.

As a result, not only will the film never be confused with the likes of "Three Days of the Condor" and other such conspiracy films, but also its unnecessarily restrained engine then starts to shimmy, shake and eventually smoke as plot points and other story elements pile up with nowhere to go. In the end, that simply creates a convoluted mess that may look complex and important, but ultimately isn't.

Of course, the film's target audience isn't there for anything to do with a sophisticated story, and whether they consciously or subconsciously realize that everything else is just filler, the women want to stare at the star's chiseled features while the men want to see him inflict some damage on the bad guys. To some extent, the film delivers in that area, with Snipes looking good while fighting and otherwise dispatching various villains much as he's done in many of his previous films.

Unfortunately, for those looking for such mayhem and action, Duguay doesn't offer much flair or imagination in presenting such scenes, at least until the end where he liberally borrows both substance and style from other films such as "The Matrix" and "Face/Off," while providing the obligatory, stupid and unbelievable mano a mano confrontation that closes out the show.

Being a male and coming pre-wired and/or conditioned for such material, my litmus test for action/adventure films like this is the visceral effect it has on my conscious (and/or unconscious) being. If I leave the theater pumped up, ready to drive home fast and take on any "bad guys" along the way (essentially acting vicariously through the main character), then the film has succeeded in its goal (for good or bad).

If it doesn't, which is the case with this film, you just go home like normal and thus thankfully avoid any confrontations, car accidents and potential encounters with the local authorities. While our preview audience seemed primed to be stoked, for the most part they were let down by the lack of true, adrenaline pumping action.

As far as the performances are concerned, Wesley Snipes ("Blade," "White Men Can't Jump") does a decent job playing his character as it's written, but then again he should since he's already had plenty of practice doing so. Marie Matiko (who makes her feature film debut) plays well off him as his reluctant "partner," but her character progressively and unfortunately goes downhill from a spirited, strong-willed woman at the beginning to the typical damsel in distress at the end.

Anne Archer ("Patriot Games," "Fatal Attraction") finally gets to move away from playing the strong and supportive wife character to one with a bit more bite, but while Maury Chaykin ("Entrapment," "The Sweet Hereafter") gets to play off the film's few and tremendously needed bits of comic relief, he doesn't make much of an impression, especially as an obstacle to Shaw's goals. Meanwhile, the likes of Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "Rising Sun"), Donald Sutherland ("Space Cowboys," "Disclosure") and Michael Biehn ("The Rock," "Aliens") are generally okay, but similarly don't really stand out that well.

While the film is decent, if stuck in second gear, during its first half, and has the necessary ingredients, including a good cast, to work as a top-notch political thriller, action/adventure hybrid, it simply comes off as a mediocre experience. Perhaps part of that's due to the "been there, seen that" factor that comes from films borrowing/stealing their basic plots and characters from other pictures. Whatever the case, "The Art of War" doesn't have enough of either of those nouns to satiate the audiences to which it's trying to play. As a result, it rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed August 24, 2000 / Posted August 25, 2000

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