August Is the Crudest Month

The flavors of late summer: violent but entertaining (The Art of War), depressing (Steal This Movie!), and not-so-terrible (Godzilla 2000). 

The Art of War

Directed by Christian Duguay

Warner Bros.

Steal This Movie!

Directed by Robert Greenwald

Lions Gate

Godzilla 2000

Directed by Takao Okawara

TriStar Pictures 

Wesley Snipes gets to perform a couple of quasi-tracheotomies in The Art of War—the first when he jabs the barrel of a rifle through an assassin’s throat, the second when he kicks a sneering baddie into a jagged piece of glass. The advantage of killing villains that way is that they don’t die immediately. They gurgle and choke and sort of drown in their own blood, giving them plenty of time to register the superiority of their opponent. The most important rule in making a paranoid conspiracy action picture is that the bad guys must be convinced that they’re smarter, more omniscient, and more potent than the patsy hero until the last possible second. Death by tracheotomy is a way of prolonging the realization that they’ve got the smaller equipment.

Ah, the subtle pleasures of the late-summer thriller. Impalings, broken necks, and blown-out brain matter notwithstanding, The Art of War is more entertaining than it needs to be. It’s not as witty as Enemy of the State (1998), from which it swipes a few plot turns, or as elegant as Mission: Impossible (1996), from which it swipes a few more plot turns. But it does the job fast and with some flash. Super-secret U.N. agent Snipes looks terrific in a tux doing the Bond thing, parachutes off a skyscraper, then gets framed (I’ve left some parts out) for the assassination of the Chinese ambassador on the eve of a groundbreaking trade agreement. Is this the work of a renegade Chinese faction or a vast American right-wing conspiracy? The identity of the people behind it all is ultimately less important than the fact that they serve up hordes of badass kung-fu kick-boxers for Snipes to pummel.

Interesting subtexts? Resonant themes? Surprising twists? Nah, but there is lots of pretty, blue-lit drizzle, a couple of neat chases, and a good climactic martial-arts pas de deux in the lobby of the U.N. building. Maury Chaykin shows up as the most rumpled FBI agent in film history. I laughed when he used the expression “Bob’s your uncle,” and his young aide said, “Who’s Bob?” and Chaykin paused for an incredulous beat and replied, “Your uncle.” Snipes goes on the lam with a Chinese translator (Marie Matiko) who has huge eyes and a cute little overbite, and in one scene he thinks she’s bugged and makes her throw all her clothes out of the car window. She’s not bugged, but the clothes thing is an excellent idea. In August, you take your pleasures where you can.

It occurred to me toward the end of the bizarrely depressing Abbie Hoffman biopic Steal This Movie! that the film could secretly have been produced by the FBI—a final flourish of counterintelligence to put the kibosh on Hoffman’s antic legacy. The movie, which features Vincent D’Onofrio as Abbie and Janeane Garofalo as his wife Anita, pretends to be a call to political activism. But its more powerful message is that protest doesn’t pay—that going up against the government will destroy your family and make you mentally ill. Put that in your hash pipe and smoke it.

The film is framed as a tragedy. It begins in 1977, as Hoffman, unraveling after five years in hiding, contacts an investigative reporter (Alan Van Sprang) and urges him to expose the vicious FBI campaign of harassment against the left. From there, the movie flashes back, forward, and sideways to show fractured scenes of Hoffman’s life accompanied by real demonstration footage and everyone’s favorite protest songs. Hoffman’s Wall Street invasion could have been depicted in all its madcap glory as a piece of absurdist theater carefully planned and triumphantly executed. His series of pranks could have formed the spine of the film. But the good times are served up newsreel-style, in tiny snippets, and they’re never particularly funny. The makers of Steal This Movie! would rather show Abbie getting beaten up or clubbed or driven to despair (he was bipolar) than Abbie at his apex, using the media to create a national happening: revolution as theater.

Obviously, we should never forget that for anti-war organizers, the movement wasn’t only about drugs and free love. (Partly, but not only.) There was also jail, exile, and sometimes martyrdom. But what’s the point of spinning Hoffman’s saga, Milos Forman-style, as the sad tale of a rebel beaten down? As Jared Hohlt reports, Steal This Movie! isn’t even true to his underground odyssey, which actually included long stays at Mexican resorts and at Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood manse. At least half the time, bipolars just wanna have fun, and Abbie Hoffman had more than his share. The problem, of course, is that the cultural left has always clung to martyr scenarios as a way of stirring up the mass audience, which worked in Easy Rider (1969) but hasn’t much since. The public’s response is more likely to be, “Hell no, we won’t go.”

It’s fun to see, in Godzilla 2000, a Japanese Godzilla flick on a big screen again, although by now I’m so used to watching Godzilla pictures on television while doing other things at the same time (reading a book, answering e-mail, drinking heavily) that I periodically tranced out. What I did see wasn’t so terrible. The movie has been dubbed in a can’t-be-bothered way that’s really irritating (Sony obviously didn’t want to spend a cent more than it had to), but it still manages to dispel some of the lingering stink of Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake.

One of Emmerich’s many blunders was thinking the world needed an anatomically correct Godzilla, whereas the charm of the original is that he tromps around on two legs, more golem than lizard. The new Toho Studios Godzilla looks as if he has a bunch of Christmas trees affixed to his back, but he’s otherwise in fighting shape, and I love the Dolbyized metallic screech and the way his crown lights up before he spews his radioactive fire. In this installment, he goes up against a spaceship that steals his regenerative powers and then—for some reason—metamorphoses into a giant lump of fertilizer with talons. But it’s nothing Godzilla can’t handle. In the last shot, after besting the invader, he can be seen incinerating buildings right and left just for the hell of it, like Fred Astaire doing a little dance before the closing credits.