Tears of the Sun

Despite good intentions, Hollywood filmmakers cannot resist the temptation to water down demanding subject matter into mainstream entertainment. War films are especially troubling, mostly because writers and directors feel the need to humanize the characters by allowing them to stop dead in their tracks and express their emotions.

Real life isn’t like that. Emotions run high in the midst of battle, but never, ever does the war take a breather so someone can share their inner most thoughts and fears. That’s what I liked about Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down.” Except for a handful of obvious theatrical moments, “Black Hawk Down” was an excellent example that war is indeed hell.

I wish I could say the same about “Tears of the Sun,” an earnest attempt to paint human faces on the civil war atrocities occurring in such African countries as Sierra Leone, Rwanda, and the Congo. The film is set in present day Nigeria, and despite some clumsy moments from writers Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo, “Tears of the Sun” manages to evoke the horror and carnage of ethnic cleansing at the hands of rebel troops.

Anyone who has ever picked up a paper or watched cable news other than on VH1 should know that these events are an everyday occurrence. Yet because we’re armchair observers, and these incidents are happening halfway around the world, we never take in the full impact. We always hear about Palestinian terrorists blowing up buses and innocent civilians in Israel, but until they blow up a Greyhound bus in Newark it’s just news, not reality.

“Tears of the Sun” is a message movie cleverly disguised as a traditional Hollywood war movie, with Bruce Willis as the leader of a SEAL team assigned to swoop down into the jungle and rescue an American-by-marriage nurse and three missionaries. On paper, these missions always look simple, an easy in-easy out maneuver where everyone supposedly gets to come home alive.

We as an audience known better, so that puts us one step ahead of the characters, especially the SEAL platoon who know that when Lt. Water (Willis) breaks command and alters the mission, there will be hell to pay. The writers do nothing to disguise this traditional plot point, exposing every stereotype at their avail like an open wound. It’s up to director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) to gloss over these moments, and for the most part he succeeds.

While none of the characters stop and make speeches, some are forced to bite from the apple filled with poisoned cliches. We know the moment a SEAL member stops to save the life of one of his charges, he will pay for his heroics. Not that we really care, because most of Water’s team have been drawn from the same, bland shade of gray. They have nicknames like Zee, Red, Slo and Silk, but they’re all interchangeable and expendable.

Willis is the only actor who commands the screen, adding just the right touch of no-nonsense bravado to his character. With his clean-shaven head and icy glare, you instantly buy Willis as a Navy SEAL, even if the writers force him to wear his heart on his sleeve. He’s not just a SEAL, but a SEAL with a conscience. Which means when Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) refuses to leave the hospital without her patients, he reluctantly agrees, knowing full well that he will abandon all but the good doctor at the pick-up point.

All that changes when Waters and his men fly over the mission and see what the rebels have done to those left behind. Waters orders the choppers to turn back, and he and his men give up their ticket home to a dozen or so patients, and agree to lead the remainder to safety in Cameroon. In one of the films largest lapses of logic, Lena stays behind. Why? Her presence isn’t vital to the survival of those left to make the trek (one of the SEALS is a medic). It’s just a cheap dramatic plot device to add cause and concern where none is needed.

As if the trek to stay ahead of the barbarian rebels wasn’t dangerous enough, the writers add insult with the addition of two surprise revelations that feel as manufactured as the idol worship, puppy dog eyes that Lena bats at Waters.

Even though I appreciated the absence of endless, mindless chatter, it seems every time someone opens their mouth it was to say the obvious. Fuqua makes sure that actions speak louder than words, showing us graphic images of war, and rallies our support when the SEAL team stumbles across and then eradicates a rebel troop slaughtering a village.

Unfortunately, when the long-winded chase through the jungle finally comes to an end, the director and writers subject us to another by-the-bullet assault where the good guys come to the rescue, too late to save every team member, but just in the nick of time to save the central characters. I wish all war could be as neat and tidy.

DON’T CRY FOR ME BRUCE WILLISHeroics outshine teary theatrics under hazy Sun


Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Eamonn Walker, Johnny Messner, Nick Chinlund, Charles Ingram. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Rated R. 118 Minutes.


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