What do perky high school cheerleaders, U.N. secret agents, and geriatric goodfellas have in common? They've all been recruited to serve as studio-movie subjects in late August, generally the most unpromising period for Hollywood product all year (with the possible exception of late January). That Bring It On, the summer's first fully female-oriented teen flick, would have been relegated to release on one of the last weekends before the kids go back to school bespeaks an underestimation of girl power that the film dispenses with nicely. Purposely lacking in parental units and pushy beaus, this is a movie that entrusts its pom-pom-toting teen queens to deal with nothing less than the entire legacy of racial appropriation in pop culture. Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, meet the Toros and the Clovers--competing cheerleader squads from suburban San Diego and East Compton, respectively.
Among its many distinctions, Bring It On is the rare post-90210 teen movie whose impeccably scrubbed school facilities and sprawling suburban homes signify something other than tasteful production design. Five-time winners of the national high school cheerleading championship, the pep squad Toros of Rancho Carne High are accustomed to getting screen time on ESPN and they mean to keep it that way. "That's all right, that's okay/You're gonna pump our gas someday!" is one of the gang's more pointedly peppy cheers. When the predominantly African-American Clovers drive down from L.A. to prove that their "Brrrr...it's cold in here" routine had been pilfered by an earlier generation of Toros ("Don't tell me you think a white girl wrote that!"), they seem to have stepped onto the set from another movie.
For better or worse, Bring It On types the Clovers as distinctly Other (no cheery scenes in the Compton 'hood here), making it principally the story of the Toros' new, boundlessly cheerful blonde captain Torrance (Kirsten Dunst, current queen of the teen-movie satire) and how she gradually comes to "do the right thing." That the head Clover cheerleader Isis (Gabrielle Union) tears up Tor's well-intentioned "guilt money" is a welcome precursor to an acrobatic finale that invites the viewer to cheer either squad as she prefers. Indeed, the Friday matinee crowd at the Mall of America was heard to root for both Toros and Clovers with equal relish.
The villains in The Art of War are easier to identify. In this super-slick and topical action thriller, rather like the Rising Sun of the new global economy, there's "the Donald Trump of Asia" (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), a Chinese zillionaire scheming to derail his nation's entry into the world market; the North Korean defense minister, who took $90 million of U.N. aid money and spent it on missiles; the U.N. ambassador from China (James Hong), who allegedly has ties to both gangsters and slave traders; and a boatload of murdered refugees alternately described as "Chinese" and "Vietnamese." Sorting all this out (to a degree) is Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes), an unsparing Buddhist ass-kicker covertly employed by the FBI's Caucasian but "ambitious" and female security chief (Anne Archer), who's acting on behalf of the U.N. secretary-general (Donald Sutherland). Acting on behalf of the American way is director Christian Duguay (Screamers), whose overpriced visuals are ostensibly there to prove that Hollywood can still outspend Hong Kong.
That The Art of War is so well-made at the level of action choreography ("Martial arts at its best!" raves FOX-TV) only makes its commodification of Chinese suffering that much more obscene. Those murdered refugees, wherever they're from, may be taken from yesterday's headlines, but given the film's conspiratorial bent (the problem here is the U.N.'s omnipotence, not global wealth inequity), there's certainly nothing we ticket buyers can do anything about. I believe this is what Sun Tsu might regard as the war of art.
And now for the tired old goombahs. Seemingly inspired by the wacky wise guys of Analyze This and The Sopranos (or by the chance to pull off one last heist of an aging genre), The Crew is a would-be comedy whose one decent idea involves plagiarizing the style of GoodFellas and calling it satire. So along with the sudden freeze frames and the tough-guy voiceover narration ("Life was for the taking and we took it, baby"), we get an extended Steadicam shot that follows our New Jersey gangsters-turned-South Beach schnooks (Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds, Seymour Cassel, Dan Hedaya) through the kitchen of a grimy delicatessen--the poor hoodlum's Copacabana--and out a special door that heads straight to the back alley. Ha ha.
Elsewhere, the camera ogles Jennifer Tilly's tits, adopts the p.o.v. of a scurrying rat (representing co-producer Barry Sonnenfeld?), and gets into position for a delightful shot of the four geezers' light-flowing urine streams all in a row. Facing eviction from their ocean-front retirement home, the boys hatch a scheme to lower their rent, thereby incurring the wrath of another predictably nonwhite villain (Miguel Sandoval). They would have been better off whacking their screenwriter.
Bring It On, The Art of War, and The Crew are playing at area theaters.