Tears of the Sun

Columbia, 2003

“It’s been so long since I’ve done a good thing...”

—Bruce Willis

Bruce Willis, as the world’s oldest lieutenant, commands a small military unit sent into Nigeria to extract an American doctor played by the ever luscious Monica Bellucci, who they tactfully refer to as “The Package”. There are also a couple of nuns and a priest who should be taken along as well, but since they aren’t Americans, they have the option of staying behind and becoming worm food in the interest of serving such plot as there is.

In perhaps the best explanation of why Willis’ character has not advanced above the rank of lieutenant, Bellucci’s feisty doctor refuses to leave with the seventy or so people she’s been tending at the mission hospital, much to the consternation of Bruce. When one of his more level headed subordinates suggests simply drugging her and marching off into the night, Willis replies that “kidnapping” would be frowned upon. As if somehow a domestic, civilian crime applies to military action in a far off foreign land. And so, in tradition of Three Kings, off they go.

What follows is the most ludicrous series of implausible nonsense to land on the screen in a very long time. If Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen attempting to crucify his career with the dreadful ’80s-action-throwback, Collateral Damage, Bruce Willis seems to be charging down the same path with Tears of the Sun.

Three Kings turns into Predator (the part with the rebels, not the part with the heavily armed interstellar chameleon) as the elite military unit goes a-creeping throughout the dense jungle. There are lots of shots of people sweating – mostly Monica, because these are astute film makers with their fingers firmly on the pulse of audience expectation. There is the obligatory charismatic baboon cameo. There’s also a nice insert shot of a lizard, so the audience doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re in the jungle. And in a strange fit of optimism, there’s a woman who is eternally balancing a rather large, rolled up throw rug on her head as she muscles her way through the vegetation.

Willis and Company are pursued by an inscrutable force of rebels who manage – with Terminator-like efficiency – to track them through the jungle, in the dark, without the aid of night vision gear. (Of course, when the whole thing is shot day-for-night, it’s easy not to trip, fall in holes, or run into trees.) By the final conflict, we wander into the end of Zulu, with a huge dose of Apocalypse Now thrown in for good measure.

There is just one problem with all of this. Director Antoine Fuqua doesn’t think he’s making any of these thrilling military classics. He’s under the impression that he’s having a go at Terrence Malick’s philosophical epic, The Thin Red Line – and to prove it, he’s got Malick’s composer, Hans Zimmer, along to legitimize his efforts.

After the grotesquely overrated Training Day, in which an uninformed but well-meaning neophyte is set upon in the urban jungle, Fuqua replants the same general premise in a real jungle. By taking a subject with all the trappings of an action film and constructing it in such a way that nothing of interest happens until the very end, he leaves himself lots of space to dwell on the tragic plight of his legion of anonymous characters. A graduate of the Oliver Stone School of Subtlety, Fuqua loads his film with repeated, Gandhi-like crescendos and hysterical accusations of white imperialists abandoning the poor unfortunates to a death worse than fate or something.

Arriving in his first scene in full-on Billy Bob Badass mode, Bruce Willis never manages to develop his character past the bald head and camo greasepaint, though given the inane dialogue and non-sequitur motivation he’s saddled with, it’s almost an unfair criticism. After a high-profile turn in Le Pacte des Loups, Monica Bellucci has little to do here but look increasingly disheveled, and behave like a complete idiot to service the plot.

Tom Skerritt dusts off his Top Gun character to play Willis’ CO, a thankless but notable role if only for his managing to carry on a remarkably coherent radio conversation from the flight deck of an exceptionally busy aircraft carrier. The always wonderful Fionnula Flanagan puts in a brief appearance as the Irish missionary version of a Star Trek red-shirt. If there’s a standout among the cast, it’s most certainly Cole Hauser, whose quiet efficiency has all the earmarks of a rising star.

The true star, however, never appears on screen. Hans Zimmer, who displayed remarkable depth with his meditative work on The Thin Red Line and Gladiator, seems determined to prove just how invaluable a fine score can be in saving an otherwise worthless and instantly forgettable waste of celluloid. His music lends such an unparalleled sense of gravity, contemplation, and emotional weight that you might almost leave the theatre thinking your time wasn’t wasted.

There are two ways to watch Tears of the Sun, one of which is infinitely more rewarding than the other. You could actually watch it (as most people find themselves doing in a movie theatre), but the cinematography is so dark that it’s largely impossible to tell what’s going on. In the end, though, that’s fine. Because you can simply close your eyes and let Hans Zimmer’s majestic score take you to places that the director, writers, and cast never even approach.