Tears of the Sun (March 3/03)
Tears of the Sun marks Antoine Fuqua's first film since Training Day, and it's a complete and utter misfire. It attempts to take a serious subject - the slaughter of indigenous Africans by Muslim rebels - and blows it by simplifying the material to such an extent that even five-year-olds would have no problem discerning what's going on. Fuqua and the two screenwriters (Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo) show an incredibly amount of disdain for the audience by assuming that they're too stupid to figure anything out for themselves. Every single element in Tears of the Sun is simplified to such an extent that the film feels more like a one of those educational films you were forced to watch in grade school (even true-life documentaries on TLC aren't this one-sided and heavy-handed).
Bruce Willis stars as A.K. Waters, the head of an elite Special-Ops unit that's been charged with extracting a doctor from the jungles of Nigeria. But the doctor, a woman named Lena Hendricks (played by Monica Bellucci) has no interest in leaving the many refugees that are under her care, so Waters lies to her and says that they can take 70 patients with them. After reaching the extraction point, Waters forcibly puts Hendricks aboard the helicopter and leaves the refugees behind. Halfway through their journey, though, Waters has a sudden crises of conscience and makes the decision to head back to save those that he left behind. As he attempts to transport the Africans to the Cameroon border, he comes under heavy fire from the Muslim rebels.
Tears of the Sun is about as subtle as an old John Wayne flick. Wayne came under a lot of fire when he directed and starred in The Green Berets, a sentimental and indulgent war movie, and Tears of the Sun is essentially the 21st century equivalent of that. The hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer score by Hans Zimmerman (who just can't resist inserting tribal sounds into the majority of the music) and Fuqua's propensity for cutting to the saddened faces of the refugees was likely meant to drive the message home, but instead comes off as a desperate act by the filmmakers to ensure that the audience completely understands their point. The black-and-white (no pun intended) portrayal of the two sides is laughable, with the good side practically angelic and the bad guys seemingly more evil than Hitler and his gang. We get a particularly telling glimpse of this early on, when the Muslim soldiers murder a sobbing priest without so much as a flinch. Like the Nazis in any World War II flick, these guys are all unquestioningly depraved; are we really to believe that out of hundreds of soldiers, there's not one person who feels just a little bit bad about killing innocents? Perhaps that's not the case, but still, the ridiculously over-the-top elements of the film don't exactly allow for free-thinking within the audience. There are absolutely no shades of grey here.
Director Antoine Fuqua's bias is clear from the word go, but what comes as a bit of a surprise is how dull the film is. His first two movies, The Replacement Killers and Bait, were almost too flashy and action-packed - while his last film, Training Day, contained Fuqua's expected showy visuals without sacrificing the story and characters. Here, he's gone too far in the opposite direction. Presumably because he thought this was an important film, Fuqua has virtually abandoned the kinetic style of his previous works. Tears of the Sun is drab and dreary - both in its look and in its tone - exacerbated by the unsalvageable script. Most of the film takes place at night, and given that Waters and his team are covered in camouflage, telling them apart becomes virtually impossible. Aside from Willis, the soldiers are essentially interchangeable - there's one dissenting grunt, likely included by the writers to speak for the opposing argument (he's not too convincing).
Stylistically speaking, there's nothing extraordinary or even interesting here. Fuqua and his cinematographer, Mauro Fiore, keep things dark - even when it's daytime. The cast members are consistently shrouded in shadows, while the ever-present forest eventually becomes suffocating. There's only so much footage of Bruce Willis wandering around through the desert a viewer can take. Having said that, the scarce fighting sequences are undeniably exciting and quite violent - something decidedly lacking from the majority of so-called action flicks. Still, that's not enough to make up for the cookie-cutter characters and eye-rolling plot developments. By the time the end rolls around, and a tearful fugitive is thanking Willis' character, stifling incredulous laughter becomes a real challenge.
Among the actors, only Cole Hauser (as a conflicted soldier) manages to make any kind of impact. Willis gives his now-standard stoic everyman performance, while Bellucci is forced to don a ridiculously loss fitting top - causing some sequences to seem as though they'd be more at home in Baywatch: Nigeria. Tears of the Sun is a mess, plain and simple. Clearly it's been designed to educate clueless Americans about a terrible situation, but surely there could've been a more subtle way to do that.