Tears Of The Sun Review
According to the news footage that opens Tears Of The Sun, the Nigerian government has just collapsed and civil war has erupted between rival tribes. Armed rebels stalk the streets and jungles, settling scores. Civilians are slaughtered, mutilated and raped for belonging to the wrong tribe or religion. The conflict in Nigeria may be fictional but this is a familiar story in all too many parts of Africa and similar tragedies are occurring right now in Liberia and the Congo. Tears Of The Sun is the first major film to deal with tribal warfare and ethnic cleansing in the African continent. It was written as a reaction to events in Rwanda in 1994, when a war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes led to an estimated 800,000 deaths in 100 days (compared to 7,000 so far in Iraq). The UN and the American government were heavily criticised for failing to intervene, a decision which was based partly on the disastrous results of their involvement in Somalia the year before, as chronicled in Black Hawk Down.
Scripts often take many years to reach the screen however and by an unfortunate accident of fate, Tears Of The Sun was finally made and released in America during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq which, in the opinion of many, was an unnecessary war fought for dubious reasons. Consequently a lot of critics misread the film's politics as gung-ho and imperialist and audiences, who were watching a real war live on the television, stayed away. The harsh reaction was undeserved because, despite its many flaws, and we'll come to them, Antoine Fuqua's film does have its heart in the right place and at least partly succeeds in bringing the horrors that have taken place in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and many other nations to the attention of a wide audience.
Bruce Willis stars as Lieutenant Waters, a battle-hardened veteran of many conflicts who believes in completing his missions with minimum fuss and following his orders to the letter. As the violence escalates in Nigeria, he and his squad are assigned to extract an American doctor working at an isolated mission. When they get there however, Dr Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) refuses to leave without her patients. The pragmatic Waters pretends to agree and takes a group of refugees along but once they reach the extraction point, he forces Kendricks into the rescue chopper and abandons the Africans. On the flight out, they pass over the mission and discover it's been destroyed by the rebel forces and its inhabitants massacred. The horrified Waters has a change of heart and orders the pilot to turn around. He vows to get the Nigerian survivors to safety but this will mean escorting them on foot through territory crawling with hostile forces.
Arriving late in the recent cycle of war movies which began with Saving Private Ryan, Tears Of The Sun suffers from the same central flaw as John Woo's Windtalkers and to a lesser extent We Were Soldiers, which is that while it wants to be a realistic film about modern combat, it still falls prey to the dusty old war movie cliches of the past. Bruce Willis looks every inch a hardened soldier but he's required to be too much of a standard movie hero: the tough bastard who softens on cue and does the right thing. Monica Bellucci meanwhile is pure Hollywood casting. Even covered in grime, the pouting Italian beauty can't convince as a tough doctor. The relationship between the two lead characters also seems false. It never quite turns into romance though it's highly reminiscent of the similar dynamic between Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen.
When it drops the artificiality, Tears Of The Sun is highly effective. Half way through, Waters and his team come upon a village occupied by rebels who are systematically raping and killing the villagers. No punches are pulled in depicting the atrocities committed and the scene is as shocking and upsetting as anything you'll see in mainstream cinema. Next to such brutal reality, the cliches are all the more conspicuous. The climactic battle scene falls back on the time-worn conventions of the race against time and the desperate last stand. While it's technically well done, I couldn't help but compare it to a similar scene in Three Kings.
Lack of characterisation is also a serious issue. All we learn about Lt Waters is that he's a tough, by-the-book soldier, with a heart of course, and Dr Kendricks is defined only by her conflict with Waters and her concern for her patients. No one else is developed to even this one-dimensional level. Waters' squad, which includes the excellent Cole Hauser from Pitch Black and Tigerland, never become anything more than interchangeable guys in uniforms, which prevents us from caring about them. The African civilians have nothing to do but look frightened or grateful. If we sympathise with their plight, it's because of what they represent rather than who they are. Giving the rebels a couple of mean-looking officers is another major mistake. A film with such serious intentions should be above using standard, glowering villains.
Tears Of The Sun is in no way awful but nor does it quite succeed on any level. As Antoine Fuqua's follow-up to Training Day, it lacks the confidence of the Denzel Washington starrer. Maybe the director had less faith in the script or maybe he felt less comfortable making a big budget war film than a modest police thriller. As a Bruce Willis vehicle, it proves once again the star's ability to carry a film on his presence alone but the subject matter is far too grim and depressing to qualify as good Saturday night entertainment for crowds who enjoy his action flicks. As a well-intentioned drama, it deserves credit for trying but it's a missed opportunity.