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Tears of the Sun

Reviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/04/07 14:28:01

"No particular pulse or reason for being."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Steven Spielberg's 'Saving Private Ryan' has had a terrible, lingering effect on war movies. Technological whiz-bang -- the ability to craft, with digital effects and digital sound, a bone-cracking you-are-there aesthetic -- has replaced personality; the soldiers themselves seem digital (and sometimes are). 'Tears of the Sun' (nice-sounding title, having no apparent meaning in the movie) is the latest example of war-as-toy-soldiers.

Bruce Willis, as the stoic, no-nonsense Lt. Waters, sets the tone; he expresses so little that the performance could be taken as a parody of dead-cool machismo if there were any evidence of wit. The rest of the cast follows suit; there isn't even, for God's sake, a wisecracking soldier who serves to lighten Waters up a bit. Most funerals have more laughs than this film.

Of course, Tears of the Sun, like its hero, doesn't have time for levity. The mission is simple and single-minded: Waters and his men are to land in the Nigerian jungle and rescue a volunteer doctor (Monica Bellucci) from an area endangered by approaching rebel forces. No more, no less. But she doesn't want to go -- at least not without the people she's helping. Waters' response is a firm negative, but when he sees piles of massacred villagers he has a change of heart, signalled by Bruce Willis' change of expression from blankly grim to grimly blank. The men go back into the chaos to get the innocent people out alive, engaging the rebel soldiers in the process.

The action, as constructed by director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), is the usual hash of Cuisinart editing and "moody" photography. An early scene in which Waters rises up from the river and startles a native is so dimly lit that I guess it achieves its objective -- to establish that Waters and his guys are so good they can see in pitch darkness. (Oh, for a shot of one of the soldiers tripping over something.) The battle sequences are mainly a matter of sneak attack and retreat -- no strategy, just cut and run. The rebels are faceless targets, except for the big cheese, who strolls into churches wielding a machete. Like Black Hawk Down, the movie regales us with the heroics of a (mostly) white American platoon picking off anonymous black savages.

The movie runs nearly two hours yet allows itself no moments of R&R in which to get to know the soldiers or the people they're protecting. The cast includes at least two firebrands given nothing to work with. Monica Bellucci can be a dark, electrifying presence, as seen in Brotherhood of the Wolf, but you wouldn't know that from her noble, perfect-doctor performance here. (Couldn't she, like Ben Kingsley in Rules of Engagement, say something like "Thank Christ! Get me the hell out of this shithole"?) Eamonn Walker, late of HBO's prison drama Oz, has the ability to play a character who could lead his own platoon with unquestionable moral authority, but here he's reduced to the role of Waters' right-hand man; he's the black guy who affirms the white hero's decency by assuring him he did the right thing.

Then there's Bruce Willis. Stone-faced and stubble-headed, he seems to be out to prove to Vin Diesel -- who's been called the new Bruce Willis -- that the old Bruce Willis isn't decommissioned yet. I have enjoyed Willis far more in far worse movies than this -- like, say, 1999's Breakfast of Champions, a botch of Kurt Vonnegut's novel that Willis believed in enough to finance most of it out of his own pocket. Did the failure of that film scare Willis back to tried-and-true mainstream junk? With the money he made from Tears of the Sun, will he foot the bill for another lunatic risk?

Experimental failures can push the medium forward; movies like 'Tears of the Sun' are stuck in neutral.

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