August 23, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Art of War

Current Status
In Season
117 minutes
Anne Archer, Wesley Snipes
Christian Duguay
Warner Bros.
Wayne Beach
Action Adventure
We gave it a C-

Is it my imagination, or has the sound engineering in mediocre action films become almost too pearly and dexterous for its own good? In The Art of War, which stars Wesley Snipes as an elite undercover agent out to stop sinister forces from undermining a Chinese trade agreement brokered by the U.N. (and you thought the convention speeches were exciting!), the dialogue is chintzy and rhythmless, but you register every routine suspense thriller noise as if it had been fussed over by technicians attempting to broadcast it to a distant planet. The rain doesn’t just pour, it streams and gushes; a tap on a car window echoes with luxurious depth; a neck getting cracked in two sounds as close as your own. The audio gambits are so commanding that at times, you forget that they’re just about the only thing gripping your attention.

Snipes’ hunted superagent likes to jump off balconies, but the leap downward that most moviegoers will be thinking of is the one Snipes himself has taken from potential A list star to king of the kick ass potboilers (and yes, that includes ”Blade”). As usual, his surly slow burn is classier than the material, but that hardly means that he transcends the sludgy muck of clichés in ”The Art of War.” A shady international businessman, a Chinatown den of sin, random attacks down every alley — when there’s this much conspiracy to deal with, paranoia becomes as thick, and about as exciting, as smog.

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