Tears of the Sun

(2003) ** R
118 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Antoine Fuqua. Cast: Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser, Eamonn Walker, Nick Chinlund.

For a while, Tears of the Sun seems as if it might be subversive in its anti-heroics, fronted by the iconic, scowling chrome dome of Bruce Willis. Instead, Antoine Fuqua plays jack of all trades--namely politically-conscious drama, romance, and action--and master of none. Marking time with the familiar, predictable premise of multiple forgettable movies, Tears of the Sun at least indulges, briefly, a debate on the appropriate use of American forces and serves as a reminder of the toll of turning a blind eye to genocidal tendencies.

With the brass's nobility sapped by the global omnipresence of American weaponry, Tears of the Sun sides with independent-minded in-the-trenches grunts, led here by Willis's Navy S.E.A.L. lieutenant. Sent in to post-coup Nigeria to extricate coincidentally beautiful U.S. citizen Dr. Lena Kendricks (and a priest and two nuns, to go), Willis's Lt. Waters hatches an unlikely scheme against Monica Bellucci's uncooperative doctor only to have an inexplicable change of heart; in other words, Tears of the Sun throws sense out of the window--or the chopper--early and often.

Each member of Waters's skeptical team, in turn, gets to speak his peace about the mission. Once more, with schpiel-ing, the modern G.I. Joe stands by his men without blindly "following orders." Only Willis's character--barely--registers any dimensionality, and only because we get to observe him making decisions and accounting for them. The decisions of his men are arbitrary foils for Waters's essential dilemma. Though careful to ennoble Kendricks and the natives, the screenwriters fail to humanize them convincingly or give them more than a passive role in the heroics.

It's an hour into the picture before anything that could be described as an action sequence arises, but once the floodgates open, Fuqua steadily climbs to a climactic, chaotic orgy of violence. This second hour effectively exploits atrocity for feeling, and action for sensation. But along the way, the dramatically inert, fossilized script serves long stretches lurking in the pitch black, killing suspense with clichés (keep that crying baby quiet, or we all die!), and attempting to explain away unjustifiable plot machinations.

The final destination--a blood-soaked reception hosted by Tom Skerritt's grizzled captain--affords the opportunity for unearned sentimental clinches (in a matter of minutes, one character utters the lines "I will never forget you. God will never forget you" and "I will always love you"). The line that rings more true is the film's sole display of humor: "Are we there yet?" Good question.

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