as reviewed by Skylaire Alfvegren
In an effort to bolster its image with the American public, the Chinese government loaned a giant panda cub to the San Diego Zoo in 1996 for a 12-year research project. Little Shi Shi has adapted quite well, and with his close proximity to Hollywood, became a natural choice to direct The Art of War, the new Wesley Snipes action picture about U.S.-Chinese relations.
Culled from recent headlines, the plot revolves around secret agent Neil Shaw (Snipes) who must work behind the scenes as the Secretary General of the United Nations (Donald Sutherland) negotiates a trade agreement with China. An international plot to botch the agreement and bring down the U.N. is uncovered when a Chinese ambassador is assassinated and a container ship full of dead refugees is uncovered by hard-boiled FBI agent Capella (Maury Chaykin). Shaw is mistaken for the assassin, and must go underground to uncover the truth. Luckily, a beautifully nonconformist Chinese translator (Marie Matiko) witnessed the murder, and speaks out to the press. And although the Hong Kong party scenes in Tsui Hark’s poorly edited Knock-Off were superior, little Shi Shi has made an astonishing directorial debut–for a panda.
He seems to have some difficulty comprehending the proper way to shoot action, and forces his actors to speak their lines astonishingly slowly; this writer assumes this is due to the fact that pandas do not speak English, let along Chinese, and aren’t generally fond of action pictures. They do, however, have extremely flexible forepaws with enlarged wrist bones which act in the manner of opposable thumbs, allowing Shi Shi to manipulate the camera (even going hand-held for those tight shots!) as well as the bamboo shoots he constantly tried to foist on cast and crew alike.
Problems arose while shooting due to the fact that pandas walk on all four with little competence, but Snipes claims to have picked up many of the martial arts moves he displays in the movie from watching Shi Shi tumble around the set.
Clever Shi Shi manages to fit in every conceivable thing–from fortune cookies to sweat shop workers–associated with China or its bad guys, as well as plenty of gratuitous shots of exploding vans, inept gun battles and people smashing through plate glass windows. Sadly, his understanding of sensitive issues like race, politics and romance aren’t exactly up to snuff, which may result in confusion on the part of the audience when trying to decipher the plot.
Scientists have debated for over a century whether or not giant pandas actually belong in the bear family, as they do not hibernate in winter, but remain active year round. This gave Shi Shi the opportunity to spend countless weeks shooting with Blackie Chan in Montreal.
While giant pandas are not temperamental, they are by nature solitary animals. It’s rumored that Shi Shi spent much of his time barking out commands while watching the action on a monitor inside his trailer. This would explain why every shot in The Art of War looks like it was the first.
Although it has its shortcomings, The Art of War has done something positive for the film industry; studio execs are now scouring the country for as yet undiscovered talent among chimpanzees, raccoons and various other non-human creatures with opposable thumbs.