Tears of the Sun
Director : Antoine Fuqua
Screenplay : Alex Lasker & Patrick Cirillo
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2003
Stars : Bruce Willis (Lt. A. K. Waters), Monica Bellucci (Dr. Lena Hendricks), Cole Hauser (Atkins), Johnny Messner (Lake), Malick Bowens (Idriss Sadique), Eamonn Walker (Ellis Pettigrew)
Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun is a deeply confused film. On the one hand, it is a harrowing, often brutally violent look at the ravages of civil war in the African nation of Nigeria, replete with horrific images of ethnic cleansing, gang rape, and mutilation. On the other hand, it is a reactionary Bruce Willis action movie, according to one hack critic, “The best since Die Hard!” Other than the presence of Willis, Tears of the Sun and Die Hard have absolutely nothing in common—not in subject matter, tone, or intent—yet one can sense that the studio executives were trying desperately to invoke the latter in the former, which ultimately weakens the film.
Willis stars as Lt. A.K. Waters, a hardened Navy SEAL who leads an elite squad into the middle of a civil war zone to bring four American nationals to safety. We know virtually nothing about Waters—throughout the film, he remains a mystery, and Willis’ steely, almost unchanging face evokes reactions of both admiration and fear. His mission is to rescue Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci), two nuns, and a priest, all of whom work at the same ramshackle hospital deep in the heart of the jungle. The nuns and priest refuse to go, but Dr. Hendricks agrees as long as she bring her patients with her. Alas, there is no room on the helicopters for them, and Waters and his team end up leaving the Africans behind where they will surely be slaughtered by the vicious rebel forces that have seized control of the country.
For reasons that are unveiled much later in the film (and even then they remain tantalizingly vague), Waters decides to turn the choppers around and rescue the Africans. When one of his team members asks him later in the film why he did this, he replies simply, “When I figure that out, I’ll let you know.” There is not enough room, so Waters and his men must hike with Hendricks and 20 or so patients through the jungle to Cameroon where they will be safe. Hiking through the impenetrable foliage of Nigeria (expertly shot in wet, heavy darkness by cinematographers Mauro Fiore and Keith Solomon) is difficult enough, but they are also being tracked by a squad of rebel soldiers who are clearly bent on killing all of them in very unpleasant ways.
So, in essence, Tears of the Sun is a chase film, with Waters and the others trying desperately to make it to Cameroon before they are overtaken by the soldiers. Yet, the severity of the backdrop against which the film is set makes it a wholly different experience from other military action movies. In fact, the film seems to be torn between its serious intents and its sometimes exploitative execution. Consider the sequence in the middle of the film when Waters and the others comes across a village that is being ravage by rebel troops. Men, women, and children are dragged out in the street, humiliated, shot at point-blank range, even set on fire while still alive. Inside the huts, women are raped and beaten and their breasts are cut off with knives (although never show graphically, the violence is incredibly bloody and disturbingly represented).
Waters and his men stealthily slip in amid the chaos and knock off the rebel soldiers one by one, but not before most of the village has been slaughtered. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) does a fine job of staging this sequence and making it exciting, but the fantasy action element is almost completely buried beneath the pain and suffering of the villagers. It plays on a typical American military fantasy—our men are smarter, faster, stealthier, and better shots than anyone in the world—yet it is set in a scene that bears too much harsh reality. We don’t know whether we’re supposed to applaud or just feel disgusted.
Not surprisingly, the climax of the film erupts in a massive firefight between Waters’ men and the rebel troops, and the U.S. military finally sends in jets so we can get plenty of enormous explosions amid the gunfire. There is something bleakly existential about the fact that almost everyone in the film ends up dead. Waters disobeys direct orders from his commanding officer (Tom Skerritt) to rescue the Africans, which is a by-the-numbers Hollywood ploy (he’s the rogue hero, after all); but, one could argue that this decision results in more deaths than if Waters had simply followed orders. One important African character is saved as a result of his actions, but this just underscores the typical Hollywood emphasis on the individual over the collective.
Although the end is marked by celebration and joy, so many people have died such horrible deaths (both Americans and Africans) by this point that is hard to read the ending as happy. The Hollywood suits certainly want you to, just as they want you to buy into the unnecessary idea of romantic heat between Waters and Hendricks (who is, of course, a beautiful doctor who wears her worn and torn clothing like a sweaty Abercrombie & Fitch model). Yet, anyone who sees Tears of the Sun will immediately recognize that this is not a standard reactionary action movie, yet it’s not a genuine liberal-hearted drama, either. If someone figures out what it is, please let me know.
Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick