There’s something to be said for finding a niche and sticking there, even in a highly competitive profession like movie superstardom.
About six years ago, Wesley Snipes became a movie star. After a series of increasingly prominent roles in increasingly forgettable pictures, Snipes broke through with a strong star turn in White Men Can’t Jump, a smart basketball comedy. Since then, however, he has compiled a resume featuring films that were light on quality, intelligence and relevance—but all of which featured Snipes’ name above the title, in big bright letters.
He made a conscious decision to become a B-movie star. Snipes’ presence in a picture usually guarantees a nonsensical plot, some sort of international villain or cartel of villains being brought to its knees by our hero, and a bunch of quick-cutting action sequences showcasing Snipes’ pidgin martial-arts abilities.
Of this almost-direct-to-video oeuvre, only 1998’s Blade has made a significant impact at the box office, earning more than $150 million. Most of Snipes’ films, like the tedious new thriller The Art of War, recoup their production costs and disappear into the cracks of cinema, never to be heard from again.
Sure, it’s not the most fulfilling artistic vision. But in a way, Snipes has it made. He gets the movie-star treatment from studios, fans (especially adoring female fans, if half the stories are true) and sycophants, yet he’s not constantly under the public microscope like Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt. He’s able to live in Chicago, not Hollywood. He has the closest thing to a normal life it’s possible to have while being an international star—and all he had to sacrifice was his artistic integrity. It’s a devil’s deal worth contemplating.
It’s probably small concern to Snipes that the films which are the results of such a career path tend to be unpleasant and uninspiring—like The Art of War. This picture was kept on the shelf by Warner Bros. for more than a year after Canadian director Christian Duguay finished it as the studio waited for an unobtrusive time to bring it out. They succeeded: With a late August release date, this picture will head straight for Blockbuster, leaving nary a ripple.
Of course, the title refers to Sun-Tzu’s seminal treatise on warfare. It’s the story of Neil Shaw (Snipes), a top operative for a United Nations counterterrorist unit keeping the world safe for dithering diplomacy. In the showpiece opening sequence, Shaw blackmails a North Korean general into returning to peace talks and also jumps off a tall building wearing a parachute. He’s working at the behest of Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer, bad as always), a bureaucrat helping out the ineffectual Secretary-General (Donald Sutherland, just not giving a shit anymore).
Any sly comment the script may have been trying to make about covert operations as a bizarre cure for the well-meaning but ineffectual nature of the UN is lost in a hail of rote plot twists and fairly uninspiring action sequences. Duguay, who manned his own Steadicam for most of the film, is in love with jittery camerawork, but he gives himself precious little to shoot: Snipes jumping off a ledge, Snipes kicking a guy, Snipes walking through a construction site.
Eventually, Shaw is framed for the murder of a Chinese ambassador who is the key to an East-West trade agreement. He goes on the run with a hot translator (Marie Matiko) and tries to find the one-armed man or something. Only Maury Chaykin, as a fat FBI agent who’s always one step behind, draws our attention away from a plot that simply can’t inspire us to care.
An afternoon of Senate Agricultural Subcommittee hearings on C-Span has more coherence than the film’s final two-thirds, and there’s no Mission: Impossible-style panache to camouflage the logic breaks. Snipes has ample charisma, but the script binds him to a series of reactive dialogue cues and a single concordant emotion: bewilderment (“I don’t know, but I’ll find out” is the closest he gets to a catchphrase).
Snipes is the hero, of course, and there’s never any doubt he’ll prevail. His name will stay above the title for another day, and he’ll continue to make films that stay well below art and just a hair’s width above pure, soulless commerce. That’s entirely his choice. You must choose whether that’s enough.
Snipes is a good actor—that much is obvious in his better early films and even at some moments in The Art of War. He’s just not interested in being a great one. Should we care? Sun-Tzu can’t help you here.
The Art of War (R) H1/2 Directed by Christian Duguay. Starring Wesley Snipes, Marie Matiko and Donald Sutherland.