Covert warfare

& lt;B & by Ed Symkus & & & &

The newest in a series of films that are continuing to prove that Wesley Snipes is a believable action star features slick technology that would make James Bond drool, and a flurry of action that will make Bond fans feel right at home. And that's just in the first few minutes.

Snipes plays Neil Shaw, a slick, fast-thinking, rugged and incredibly agile agent who works for the United Nations, running around the world doing the kinds of nasty covert things the U.N. wouldn't want to be responsible for. So of course, he doesn't actually "exist."

In this case, some of the things he does revolve around the reality-based shaky relationship between the United States and China. The plot presents the idea that different factions are slowly coming together and that a trade agreement between the countries is imminent. But just days before the big signing, the Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. is murdered -- a cold-blooded kind of job, right in front of hundreds of public eyes. And even as Shaw is off on one of the film's best foot chases, through rain-soaked, nighttime back alleys, the blame is being arranged to be squarely centered on him instead of the prey he's running after.

And remember, he doesn't exist. He couldn't possibly be one of the good guys. And he's got a mighty big, recently fired gun in his holster when he's caught by New York's finest.

But all of this is more or less a prologue to the complexities of the film's plot. Because not all of the characters are drawn out as fully as they could have been, there's some difficulty a few times in knowing exactly who is on which side. This gets a little annoying but doesn't take anything away from the main point of Shaw's predicament -- that of him going after the bad guys while the cops are coming after him.

In getting all of this across on the screen, the film shells out as much violence as it does action, and there's a lot of action. Most of that violence is the usual gunplay kind of thing, but more than once, the Chinese gang element goes for more brutal tactics, and there will be some squirming in the seats of some audience members.

But not all of this is as serious as it sounds. Amid all of the international espionage and showdowns in the streets of New York, there's a sliver of humor coming in and out at well-placed moments. And within all of the action, some good acting is on display. Snipes does what Snipes does. He's an action figure who knows how to deliver a line. Anne Archer, as FBI Agent Hooks, puts a novel spin on the role of a woman with a lot of power by playing the part in a low-key manner, but letting it be known that her character is never not in total control. The harried but effective FBI man named Capella is perfectly done up by Maury Chaykin, who happens to own the film's best short piece of dialogue which compares to what's going on all around him with professional wrestling. Only Donald Sutherland, as Secretary General of the U.N., is oddly ineffective in his part.

Sense, or the film's off-and-on lack of it, again is brought to mind with some business about Shaw's apparent intuitive powers of deduction which allow him to figure out what went on at crime scenes or which move a villain is going to take next. It makes for an interesting ruffle in the storyline but it's never explained. And in a plot move that starts out shakily -- an unlikely partnership between Shaw and a translator, Julia (Marie Matiko) -- things turn around to make it one of the more involving parts of the film.

The climax, filled with creepy shadows, flashing lightning, firing guns, flying fists and shattered glass, is a good one. And a much needed one, since just prior to it, the revelation of who's actually behind all of the wrongdoing temporarily puts a damper on everything that's come before it. This is partly because the reasoning for the person's actions doesn't make any sense. But it's mostly because, like so many films before it, this one just has to have a big twist at the end. But hey, future scriptwriters, it really doesn't. A big wallop isn't all that necessary to make viewers go home and tell their friends to see a movie. Only some satisfaction is.