Hollywood movies can be so very instructive, as director Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun is a perfect example.
Within the confines of its stacked-deck propaganda-laden plot (the last time I saw anything this blatant was John Wayne’s The Green Berets in 1969) involving A.K. Waters (played by Bruce Willis) and his band of generic soldiers leading an absurdly humanistic doctor (played by Monica Bellucci, Malena) and a group of refugees out of war-torn Nigeria (played by Hawaii) into the safety of Cameroon (played by Hawaii in a dual role), I learned many potentially useful bits of esoterica. For example, I was not previously aware that a grass hut set ablaze will burn in isolated spots in a most picturesque fashion without being reduced to ash for 10 or 15 minutes — or however long it takes the scene to play out. Yet that’s how it works in the world of Tears of the Sun, which reduces the concept of pillaging a village to something like an R-rated ride at Disney World — sort of like the Pirates of the Caribbean with atrocities. I was further interested to learn that commanding officers apparently go stand on the flight decks of aircraft carriers where planes are taking off right behind them in order to conduct radio conversations with men in the field.
But the film’s educational value doesn’t stop there. It also appears that it’s standard practice for soldiers to creep along stealthily through jungle-y tendrils, careful not to make a sound, while not being bothered by refugees trailing after them singing away with careless abandon. And it seems it’s just peachy keen with commanding officers for their subordinates to defy orders, follow their consciences and “do the right thing.”
While the overall attitude of the film certainly more than explains the enthusiastic participation of the U.S. military in the project (Apocalypse Now this ain’t), it’s hard not to wonder why the armed forces didn’t object to this depiction of soldiers who approach orders as nothing more than suggestions. (“Men, we’ve been suggested to rescue this woman …”). From the advertising campaign, you might have the impression that Tears of the Sun — while fictional — is an attempt to make a serious war film along the lines of Black Hawk Down. Even if that were the attempt, the results are more along the lines of a less goofy Behind Enemy Lines combined with the gung-ho militarism of We Were Soldiers. At heart, Tears of the Sun is an unsubtle valentine to American military paternalism — and one that’s chillingly not thought out very carefully. The film doesn’t bother with that sort of thing.
When Waters is asked why he’s disobeying orders and risking everyone’s lives, he brushes it off by saying, “When I figure that out, I’ll let you know.” Apparently, neither he nor screenwriters Alex Lasker (Beyond Rangoon) and Patrick Cirillo (Homer and Eddie) ever do figure it out — or if they do, they don’t tell us. (It may not be accidental that it’s been years since either writer has actually had a script make it to the screen.) It is, I guess, supposed to be enough that director Fuqua litters his film with shot after shot of Bruce Willis looking very grim and purposeful. I’m not at all sure what thematic purpose it serves to have Bellucci run through the jungle in tropical togs that must incorporate a Wonder Bra, judging by her display of cleavage (though maybe that’s what’s causing Willis to look so purposeful).
The characters certainly boast considerably less dimension than her bust. They’re all cut from War Picture 101 templates — as are their fates. It’s not hard to guess who’s going to buy the farm next, or even when. The setups for characters’ demises are about as subtle as having someone in a mystery film announce, “The name of the murderer is … .” The good guys are all ever so virtuous and the bad guys are ever so evil. If there are any shadings or nuances, they got lost somewhere in Fuqua’s obsession with decoratively placed gas flames and dripping jungle leaves.
Worst of all, though, is that little of this is believable. Some of it is even sufficiently absurd as to topple over into the risible. There’s one plot development (explaining why our band of refugees are so sought after) that seems to have wandered in from the Russian revolution (Anastasia, anyone?). Characters live or die in a wholly arbitrary manner. If it suits the script to have a character — who, by all rights, out to have expired a reel ago — make it to safety, then that’s what’s going to happen (and the implication is that if you make it to safety, you’ll be just fine, no matter what your wounds).
It’s to be expected that the performances in such a film are going to be less than stellar — and Tears of the Sun doesn’t disappoint on this level, with the highest honors going to Willis, who actually made me wish I was watching Hudson Hawk. The saddest thing about the whole film is that Fuqua — or his cinematographers — have crafted a visually striking movie that has the same dark, deeply saturated look that marked Apocalypse Now. If only Tears of the Sun had one tenth of that film’s brains or heart.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke