Someone (I think it was Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four) said that if you have the power to take someone's life, there's an ethical responsibility placed upon you to find a better way. The Art of War illustrates what happens when the better way isn't taken.
Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes, who I've not seen on the screen since Blade) is a covert operations agent for the United Nations (UN), providing a little persuasive power when traditional diplomatic channels don't do the trick. Shaw operates under the guidance of Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), who's the right-hand person to the UN Secretary General (Donald Sutherland). To say that the methods Shaw employs (usually involving some form of blackmail) are unorthodox would be an understatement, but they are effective.
As one would expect, the movie starts with a furious action scene just as the year 2000 is about to turn in Hong Kong, where Shaw persuades a North Korean general to get back to the bargaining table. Shaw escapes from this mission in a grandiose manner, parachuting off from a tall building with a few bullets lodged in his shoulder.
The pacing after this sequence never lets up. Shaw is soon framed for the murder of the Chinese ambassador who's negotiating a trade agreement with the UN. This leads to yet another one of those situations where the protagonist has to overcome unsurmountable odds to uncover the truth: Shaw has to deal with his own government (the FBI and the NYPD), people on his side who may not be what they appear to be, Chinese gangsters, New York City traffic, and a love interest in the form of a UN translator, Julia (Marie Matiko).
Snipes has played this sort of a role before (in U.S. Marshals) and does a fine job. The rest of the cast, however, is given a terrible script to work with. While Marie Matiko is attractive, the conversations between her and Shaw are groan-inducing. As is anything said by Anne Archer, and Michael Biehn who plays Shaw's partner. Even Donald Sutherland, who I consider to be a superb actor, can do little to save this film from an acting/script perspective. Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays a decent villain.
Set in the present, the film makes some intriguing points. The notion of The Art of War is borrowed from Sun Tzu's work, and the core theme of the film is that the enemy should be defeated from within. The right-wing idea that the Chinese are undermining American "democracy" from within (thus winning the war) is put forth. The notion that wars can be fought effectively in this subversive way is shown, but also illustrated is the idea that such a war inevitably does more harm than good. The argument is made that allowing free trade with China would lead to a reduction in sweat-shops and other Chinese slave labour, because of "western competition". I'd argue the result would be the opposite in reality.
But forget the logical holes in the plot or the pseudophilosophy. Director Christian Duguay is best at setting the mood of the film, as he freely borrows from the classics, including the slow-motion martial arts and bullet sequences from The Matrix. Duguay also uses bleached and black and white scenes to illustrates flashbacks and action sequences; New York has rarely looked this bleak.
The Art of War is a fast-paced high-energy action thriller, with some amazing visuals and camera work. I highly recommend checking it out on the big screen.