The Black Man
Atop a Hong Kong highrise on New Year’s Eve 1999, supersecret agent Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes) takes his time completing his supersecret task. He’s renowned, you soon learn, for being so supersecret that no one knows he exists, for having no “identity.” As he looks down on the thronged streets far, far below, his team members, monitor his activities from inside their supersecret van, filled with all kinds of supersecret devices. “What’s he doing?” they wonder aloud. His answer: “Experiencing the moment.”
For a man who has no identity, Shaw sure has plenty of attitude. When he completes his assignment on the roof, he descends to the street, where he makes trouble with a sense of style and self-congratulatory brilliance. Not only does he steal precious North Korean computer data, he also out-martial-artses a series of hapless Chinese bodyguard-types and sasses clueless interrogators, to boot. When Chinese business mucky-muck David Chan (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) inquires after Shaw’s identity, he answers, “I’m Eddie Murphy.” Chan looks surprised, but thoughtful, as if he’s considering the possibility. The point seems to be this: all black men look alike to those who are not in the know. And in this movie, that means just about everyone but Shaw.
Such anonymity is useful in his line of work, which, as far as I can make out, is dirty-tricking for the United Nations. Employed by the ruthless Head of UN Security Eleanor Hooks (Anne Archer), he and his team bop about the world, stealing data from and exposing scandalous wrongdoing by various governmental officials in order to force them to do what the UN wants them to do. Who knew that global politics was so insidious!? And it’s not just that Shaw is some heartless merc he’s a sincere martial artist and Buddhist with a carefully worked out ideology (which remains mostly supersecret to the rest of us), dedicated to keeping peace and doing the right thing. And experiencing the moment, of course.
After completing the Hong Kong mission, Shaw heads back to New York (actually, all the locations are Montreal, set-designed and digitally enhanced to resemble Hong Kong and NYC), where again, he’s apparently the only African American male anyone notices. In order to discuss his next assignment with Hooks, Shaw arrives at the UN dressed as some sort of “African” diplomat. On their way out, they run into her superior, Secretary General Thomas (Donald Sutherland), who observes that they haven’t met before. “We still haven’t,” says Shaw, so very mysteriously and self-importantly. Some time later, when the usually oblivious Thomas finally demands that Hooks let him in on what’s going on and who’s been taking care of all their nefarious minutiae, she declares simply, “The black man.”
On the most obvious level, this answer speaks to the film’s casting and narrative organization: Shaw is indeed the only black character. Normally, such visual prominence might severely compromise one’s ability to go undercover, but here it only seems to increase Shaw’s inscrutability factor, not to mention the threat he poses to all sides. (As in, “Who is that super-smooth, super-lethal guy?”) He’s admired and envied by his teammates, Bly (Michael Biehn), and Novak (Liliana Komorowska), as well as by the FBI guy who’s tracking him, Capella (Maury Chaykin). He’s also somewhat enthralling to a UN translator, Julia Fang (Marie Matiko), who’s an accidental witness to the assassination of the Chinese Ambassador, just at the moment when the UN is voting on a Chinese “trade agreement.” (Details are fuzzy, but the plot more or less revolves around this world-changing vote, which grants China more power on the world stage than some folks would like.)
This plot point leads to the second level where Shaw’s racial singularity is thematic and meaningful. Not only does he stand out visually and Snipes is a stunning presence, no doubt Shaw is also a kind of chosen one, an “action hero” with a sense of mission and righteousness, no matter that he happens to be working for those who seek to maintain order by his illegal and often violent activities. Self-assured and serious about his philosophy and image (his wardrobe and gadgetry are first class), Shaw is determined to right the wrongs of the world (or, as many as he can get his hands on). Though Shaw complains to Hooks about the job’s lack of benefits and “insurance,” he’s special and knows it; he recognizes that he’s the only man equipped with the requisite physical and psychic gifts to get all this shit done (track down the killers, save the planet). Indeed, it appears that he has harnessed a way to channel his memories and spiritual powers into action. Or something like that. He tends to roll his head back, close his eyes, and meditate when things get wild. It could be that he’s gathering his wits. Or better, his inner strength: he is strong. The film highlights two great-looking set-pieces in which Shaw chases a villain through rainy streets, over murky rooftops, into an ominous warehouse, and by the time the second one comes along, he’s apparently seeing flashbacks to the first one, and cinematographer Pierre Gill’s mesmerizing point of view camera blends the two scenes together, through fast-cutting and “negative” imaging (such that the picture resembles a photo negative). Being inside Shaw’s head like this is a little disconcerting, but it might make you start to respect his weirdness, too.
Even if he is impressively abstruse, Shaw doesn’t have much going for him in the way of “character development.” And Snipes brings his usual action guy stoicism and surface-intensity to the role. Wayne (Murder at 1600) Beach and Simon Davis Barry’s script is full of explosions, stunts, and shoot-outs, plus some basic holes (those bizarre and annoying coincidences that make you stop watching the film and start wondering just how some particular event has come to pass). Shaw has lots of toys ultrafast palm piloty thingies and gleaming, cannon-like guns but no apartment, no friends, no life except this high-stakes job (unless you count his White Men Can’t Jump basketball scene, where he bonds with Bly on a street-court, with a hip-hop soundtrack during a flashy montage of sweaty body parts, so you know they’re both just regular guys, I suppose).
And Shaw’s relationship with Julia is, well, tedious: for most of the movie he’s holding her in a kind of protective custody, handcuffing her to steering wheels, or, when they agree to work as a team, keeping in contact with her by high-tech earpieces and mini-mics. She’s a familiar Snipes action flick heroine (see also Irene Jacob U.S. Marshals, Jennifer Lopez in Money Train, Yancy Butler in Drop Zone), pretty, brave, and eventually, in need of rescue. Julia wants to be tough and rebellious, but Shaw’s got all the (script-mandated) advantages. Or maybe not: their verbal exchanges tend toward the cryptic, awkward, and mundane. She: “You’re not used to this are you, not having control of a situation, being manipulated?” He: “Are you stating the obvious for your own enjoyment or are you moonlighting as a psychic friend?”
In fact, much of the film states and restates the obvious: international “diplomacy” is really another form of war, a duplicitous business where, as Hooks observes, appearances are everything and you destroy your enemies from within. That the enemies here are the “Chinese” imagined by the U.S. “right wing” is minimally topical, as it rehearses the right’s fear of Chinese influence on U.S. elections and theft of military secrets, as well as the right’s desire to return to Cold War politics by strong-arming and profiteering. But the movie dumps all this bad “ideology” on one evil character, so that the basic U.S. world-domination system looks just fine.
Though again, “looking fine” is, of course, precisely the problem in global governing and war-making. The film’s title is lifted from Sun Tsu’s famous ancient handbook, which makes just these points: no one can be trusted and nothing is what it seems. But while The Art of War suggests that Shaw’s lack of identity is an asset in such an environment, it’s also something of a liability, or at the least, a distraction. It makes it hard to tell what he’s experiencing moment to moment, and that makes it hard to care much.