Tears of the Sun
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In the production notes for Tears of the Sun, writer Alex Lasker talks about the movie's genesis as his effort (with co-writer Patrick Cirillo) to create his own The Sand Pebbles. His observation gives you a rough idea of where Tears of the Sun is headed. But the movies are very different. While The Sand Pebbles paid close attention to the lives of its characters and allowed them to exist as fully drawn people before thrusting them into battle, Tears of the Sun has no room for such a deliberate approach.

The screenplay focuses almost solely upon action. It drops us into a harrowing situation — civil war in Nigeria — and it doesn't let up until the final credits. This approach has the benefit of keeping the suspense level ratcheted high throughout the movie. There is hardly any room for breathing. But it has the disadvantage of keeping us at arm's length from the characters. We never get to truly understand or identify with the people we're watching on screen — and this weakens the drama's impact.

Maybe the filmmakers should've paid closer attention to The Sand Pebbles. They give us a war drama of self sacrifice like The Sand Pebbles, but they seem to have forgotten that self sacrifice has its greatest impact when you know the people involved. In Tears of the Sun, everything we know about the characters comes while rebel guerillas pursue our heroes through dense jungle. Instead of providing us with insights into the characters, director Antoine Fuqua's camera focuses on shafts of light, raised machetes, monkeys in trees, raindrops splashing in the mud, and blood flowing across the faces of the guerillas' victims. These are the things Fuqua is primarily interested in. The human characters take a backseat.

Other movies have thrown audiences headfirst into military situations while providing little background information on the characters — such as Saving Private Ryan. But in Steven Spielberg's film, the writing and the performances and the direction were sharp enough that we came to understand the characters by watching how they reacted on the battlefield. The same thing doesn't happen here. Director Fuqua lacks Spielberg's sense of detail; Lasker and Cirillo's screenplay provides no memorable dialogue; and the lead performances — Bruce Willis as Navy SEAL Lieutenant A.K. Waters and Monica Bellucci as Dr. Lena Kendricks — drift between hardened posturing and grimacing (Willis) to bewildered sleepwalking (Bellucci).

The drama is precipitated by a decision that Lt. Waters (Willis) makes. While airlifting Dr. Kendricks (Bellucci) out of the jungle, just minutes ahead of the rebel forces, Waters must confront the hateful stares of Kendricks. Waters left her Nigerian friends stranded in the forest. They'll undoubtedly be killed by the guerillas. However, Waters' mission didn't include Kendricks' 70 friends — and there was no extra room in the helicopters. As Waters and Kendricks look down on the ravaged village where she once lived and worked (the helicopters conveniently fly over this village), bloodsoaked bodies now lie everywhere and fire engulfs the buildings. Lt. Waters suddenly realizes what he has to do. He doesn't completely understand his decision, but he orders the helicopters to return to the clearing where Kendricks' friends remain waiting. Later he says, "[It has been] so long since I did a good thing, the right thing."

However, we aren't given any context for his decision — meaning how his decision was affected by his past experiences. So why does he choose this moment to defy orders from Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) and follow his own conscience? We don't know. The movie doesn't help us understand this decision. And therefore the decision only carries a generic sense of a man standing up for his code of ethics.

To help cover up this deficiency, director Fuqua overdirects the movie, never leaving the camera in the same place for more than a second or two, giving us a bewildering and claustrophobic barrage of close-ups that give us little sense of perspective. For example, when Lt. Waters and the Navy SEALS lead Dr. Kendricks and her friends to their final destination, we're suddenly out of the jungle. There is no sense that they're nearing the end of their journey. Suddenly we're among burnt out automobiles and hordes of Nigerian refugees. And most manipulatively, the movie chooses this time to finally provide Waters with air support — as if jet fighter pilots really have the ability to fly at high speed over small jungle clearings, instantly pick out the good forces from the bad, and then let loose their machine guns. This is sheer nonsense.

However, Tears of the Sun arrives at an opportune moment, when American troops are poised for battle in Iraq, and I'm going to guess the patriotic wellspring will flow over into this movie. Some critics are already comparing it to Black Hawk Down (which received four Academy Award nominations). But I think this is a clumsy and manipulative drama that forsakes human emotions in favor of explosions and machine-gun paced editing. This style of approach made more sense in Fuqua's debut action flick, The Replacement Killers. And in Fuqua's Training Day he had the benefit of a strong screenplay by David Ayer and an astonishing lead performance by Denzel Washington. But here Willis looks dour and Bellucci (an exciting actress who starred in Brotherhood of the Wolf and will soon be seen in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions) has never looked so lifeless. Fuqua and his screenwriters would've benefited from watching The Sand Pebbles again and paying attention to the humanity that Steve McQueen brought to his role. Without that humanity, all that's left is just another bloated blockbuster.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Columbia Pictures
Movie Web site: Tears of the Sun



Photo credits: © 2003 Columbia Pictures Industries.
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