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Tears of the Sun   C

Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writers: Patrick Cirillo, Alex Lasker
Cast: Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Johnny Messner, Malick Bowens, Eamonn Walker.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'm sure they'll take away my film geek badge for saying this, but shouldn't they have dumbed this down a little more? Tears of the Sun presents a shoot-'em-up wrapped around would-be social commentary, a message picture undone by its gung-ho roots. It screams for flashy action, pyrotechnic explosions, and hordes of bad guys getting wasted in creative ways. Its wafer-thin premise is ideal for constructing gorgeous visuals, for telling a story through images rather than words. It even has a director, Antoine Fuqua, with the perfect instincts for compelling abstraction. But it makes the mistake of launching itself into something more substantial -- something it doesn't have the chops to properly handle. The effort stretches its foundation to the breaking point.

Fuqua got his start in commercials and videos, a common background than belies his very palpable skills behind the camera. He has a way of marrying intense compositions of light and color to the underlying drama in his work, something less prevalent these days than we may like to think. His last film, Training Day, delivered far more than we could have hoped from it, and Tears of the Sun tries its utmost to keep the streak alive. Training Day had the advantage of Denzel Washington in what may have been the performance of his career. Here, Fuqua turns to a much different but no less reliable star: Bruce Willis, who has the kind of unbearably flinty screen presence that speaks volumes with its silences. Willis can occupy the screen for hours at a time, with no more than a few monosyllabic grunts for dialogue, and still keep us enraptured. When added to a few solid backups (such as Eamonn Walker, who can match Willis eyeball-for-twitching-eyeball) and Fuqua's excellent eye, there's the potential for great things here.

The trouble comes with the particular scenario they've chosen to portray. Tears of the Sun centers around genocide on the African continent, a topic that requires more thought than the movie is capable of giving. The filmmakers clearly want to generate discussion on the topic, but the fork-and-spoon storyline saddles it with easy answers when complex meditation is called for. The setup has Willis' Lieutenant Waters and his crack team of Special Forces Bad Asses™ dropped into Nigeria in the midst of a bloody coup, charged with finding an American doctor (Monica Bellucci) and escorting her to safety. Their charge doesn't include the injured Africans at her missionary, and while they initially make the pretext of taking as many out as they can, they end up abandoning the natives at the pick-up point.

Fuqua stages the early scenes with crisp efficiency, dwelling on the cut-and-dried nature of U.S. military maneuvers and viewing the drama as (in Waters' terms) "just another mission." But he takes care to draw menacing hints of the threat to come. Villains soon appear: sinister soldiers of the country's usurping rulers, wearing blood-red berets and carrying machetes in a most unsettling manner. As they go about their pillage-and-burn routine, Fuqua makes sure to drench us in the visceral nature of their atrocities -- coincidentally right about the time that Waters has a change of heart. He orders the choppers to turn around mid-flight and return for the stranded refugees. The wounded are packed out, leaving Willis & Co. to lead the rest to safety on foot, through a landscape of ethic cleansing, terrorized villages, and the aforementioned Forces of Evil intent on tracking them down.

In order to sustain the action -- which settles in to a simple trek from the evacuation zone to the Cameroon border -- Fuqua has to resort to the most expedient methods he can. Dialogue drops to a minimum and ideas are expressed as plainly as possible... which is all well and good, except for the fact that Tears of the Sun has more important things on its mind. It takes great pains to affect us with the images of slaughter: to force us to look at horrible things and make us acknowledge that such images have all-too-real counterparts. Yet even as we ponder the nightmare, Willis and his men come striding through the scenery, righting all the wrongs with some well-placed sniper fire and a "can do" attitude. The issue demands sober meditation, but the film's solutions come all too speedily, creating a cognitive disconnect between the message and the way Tears of the Sun delivers it. In light of the current world climate, some of the story decisions are grossly irresponsible at best (the villains are Muslim, their victims Christian), and the whole thing derails during a slam-bang finale that not only obliterates the larger issues, but pushes basic credibility to ludicrous extremes.

It's a pity, because taken on its own merits, Tears of the Sun has a fair amount to recommend it. The pacing works well, and the photography is expertly conceived, but these things can't cover up the ethical morass at the film's core. Had it contented itself with being a smart action picture, its assets would have flourished. Instead, they block the filmmakers' efforts to elevate the material, transforming serious discourse into a dangerously simplistic fantasy. It takes more than brooding movie stars and a few F-16s to make everything okay again. The world's problems are too difficult to be solved in such stark terms, no matter how much we -- or Tears of the Sun -- may want to believe otherwise.

Review published 03.10.2003.

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