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Tears of the Sun Print E-mail
Friday, 06 October 2006

Image Although the setting for this war/rescue melodrama is unusual—Nigeria during its civil war—the story is overall the same old thing. Don’t come to this film looking for anything out of the ordinary, don’t expect anything other than stereotyped characters—you won’t find them. Director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “King Arthur”) is proficient with action scenes and gets reasonably sturdy performances from his cast. But lead Bruce Willis plays Lt. A.K. Waters in a standard Bruce Willisian manner: he squints, he clenches his teeth and moves as though all his muscles are permanently flexed. There’s no looseness or naturalness to his performance—he’s mostly rather dull.

In his commentary track, Fuqua claims he was striving for realism, and so cast the Nigerian characters with real Africans, many of whom had fled the Nigerian Civil War. But then he shot the whole film on highly-recognizable Hawaiian locations (the island of Oahu) and depicts the insurgents following our little band through the thick jungles as standard-issue bad guy soldiers. He wanted to make the audience aware of what has been going on in various African countries since the 1960s. That’s a laudable goal, but the movie itself is such a standard, unsurprising movie of its type that he undercuts his goal of realism with routine melodrama. There is a plot surprise near the end—the identity of one of the characters—but again, it’s the same kind of surprise in many other movies like this.

Willis’ A.K. Waters is a tough, long-term Navy SEAL, sent with a handpicked team into the heart of war-ravaged Nigeria to rescue a U.N. doctor, as well as some nuns and a priest—if they choose to leave with the Navy team. Waters and his group are parachuted into Nigeria at night, and quickly find their target village. The nuns and priest decline the offer of escape, preferring to stay with the wounded patients in their hospital (converted from a church). And Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), the doctor they’ve come to rescue, will accompany them only if all ambulatory patients are taken along, too. After a stern, silent moment, Waters agrees to this—but tells one of his men that the helicopters they’re to meet can take only a few people. He plans to leave the rest behind. But as soon as he says this, we know that he’ll come around and do his best to rescue as many people as possible. Since that’s a foregone conclusion—it’s the plot, after all—much of what follows is merely waiting to see how this rescue is done.

At first, the journey through the jungle is relatively uneventful, though especially difficult for the injured patients (one of whom has an artificial leg). But Waters and his team realize they’re being pursued by the rebels who wiped out the village. The most harrowing, impressive sequence in “Tears of the Sun” is an almost quiet battle the SEALS wage against another group of rebels who’ve attacked a different village. Details of their atrocities are shocking, even horrifying—and, the factoids tell us, all drawn from reality. After this, Waters’ men are as willing as he has become to lay down their lives in an effort to get the group to nearby Cameroon.

In addition to those hideous but true atrocities, Fuqua employs other details taken from reality to underscore the seriousness of his movie. When the band finally reaches the Cameroon border, the road is lined with heavily-laden cars that previous fugitives had to abandon.

In their surprisingly brief commentary track, writers Alex Lasker & Patrick Cirillo explain that their major inspirations were “The African Queen” and “The Sand Pebbles,” but once director Fuqua was involved, the material that apparently attracted both him and Willis was replaced over the course of many rewrites. They never explain just what those elements were, but it becomes clear that their original script featured a love story between unlikely characters—the doctor and the Navy SEAL—similar to that in “The African Queen.” The film now plays without any real suggestion of a romance between Willis and Bellucci, which is probably just as well.

“Tears of the Sun” didn’t do well at the boxoffice, possibly because of its opaque, pointless title, which was lifted by Willis from one of the several “Die Hard” #4 scripts he was considering at the time. Even so, it’s hard to imagine just what he thought was being conveyed by the poetic but perplexing title.

Although this Blu-Ray disc doesn’t include the 142-minute director’s cut the IMDb refers to, there’s little sense that anything important is missing—because the deleted scenes the disc does include as a separate extra, which presumably would have been the source for the additional footage don’t amount to much. No significant issues are expanded, we don’t learn anything more about the characters. As with almost all deleted scenes included as extras on DVDs, laserdiscs, etc., it’s easy to see why these were cut.

On the other hand, the optional “factoid” track is often very interesting. There are several types of “factoids” (don’t the Sony Home Video people know “factoid” means “falsehood that looks like a fact”?) included. Once you select that option, they pop up occasionally all through the film; icons and color identify the type of factoid being displayed—a stethoscope, a reel of film, a helicopter, etc. Background details, anecdotes about some of the characters, explanations of the Hawaiian locations, are among the “factoids.”

As usual with high definition video, be it broadcast or on a DVD, the colors are intense and rich, with some almost fluorescent, which can be a little distracting. Even the silver hair of one of the nuns draws unwanted attention to itself. But the green landscapes, silvery clouds and other scenic details are breathtaking, far better than similar scenes in standard definition video. An overhead shot of a helicopter landing in a grassy field borders on the awesome; you can see virtually every blade of grass flattened by the downrush of the air from the copter’s rotors.

The sound on this Blu-Ray disc is typical of the care given to more expensive films and to their home video releases, although in this case the surround speakers are not emphasized. But the recording is crisp and clean, and does fill the room.

The movie is never gripping though it is involving throughout; the longer it runs, the more melodramatic it becomes, wrapping up with a climax that would have been entirely appropriate for a John Wayne war movie, and not for a more thoughtful film like, say, “The Sand Pebbles.” The movie is occasionally confusing—I had to back up a couple of times just to see what was happening. Fuqua tries to differentiate between the SEALs, but except for Willis, they’re all young men of about the same age; camouflage facial paint makes all races look the same. But there’s no denying the movie’s sincerity—nor, unfortunately, its basic war-movie ordinariness.

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