In his ancient script The Art of War, the legendary Chinese figure Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will fight without danger in battles.” He also wrote, “All warfare is based on deception.”
Since the penning of this famous manuscript in 6th century BC, military leaders, political campaigners, sports teams, business strategists and even reality television contestants have been known to peruse this text in search of winning tactics.
Ray Koval (Clive Owen) and Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) also seem to be familiar with the concepts. Working as secret agents for the U.S. and Russian governments, the two spies meet at the American Consulate in Dubai where Claire undresses Ray (in more than one respect) and leaves the drugged and drowsy MI6 agent looking for a way to explain the loss of some important confidential codes.
Years later in New York, the pair crosses paths again. Both have moved on from their government jobs and are employed by rival, multi-national corporations. However when Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), one company’s CEO, hints at an impending breakthrough at his lab just days before his competitor (Paul Giamatti) is scheduled to address his own shareholders at their annual meeting, the two corporate spies see a way to line their pockets by joining forces. Working from within their respective companies, they plan to abscond with the discovery and sell it to the highest bidder.
The problem is these skilled emissaries have been trained to trust no one and that proves to be a problem in forming a lasting alliance. Meeting under clandestine conditions, the couple enjoys intimacy (which viewers see very little of) but either begin or end their liaison with one or both of them “testing” the other. Considering their highly suspicious natures, it’s hard to believe their plan or partnership works as well as it does.
Following the ins and outs of their scheme also proves to be difficult as Ray and Claire change their allegiances and their minds with surprising regularity. In addition, the plot skips around the time continuum in a sporadic fashion that makes it almost impossible to keep up unless you’re paying very close attention. Still for adult viewers who are willing to work at watching these endless twists, the film offers some entertaining and clever moments. Unfortunately, in the meantime, a glut of scatological slang, profanities and crude terms for sex are repeatedly used.
Given the highly competitive nature of these corporate enterprises, those caught up in the duplicitous activities portrayed in this film might be wise to follow some other, more modern advice that says, “The best defense is a good offense.”