At the conclusion of Tears of the Sun, Bruce Willis’ latest, his character is told God will always remember him for what he’s done. I guess when you’ve saved the planet twice and the occasional airport, appreciation from mere mortals just isn’t enough.
This exchange is one of many overblown, dramatic moments in Tears of the Sun, whose title serves only to bring to mind overblown, dramatic pre-teen poetry. And the movie moves with the pacing of the long hump over jungle terrain at its core. Even a baboon yawns onscreen.
Yes, there are a handful of powerful moments and impressively mounted war games. But Tears waffles so much between three “war-is” mentalities — hell, redemptive and super-cool for explosions — that it’s hard to truly connect.
Boilerplate news footage and sound bytes about coups open the film, which hypothesizes a violent civil war erupting in Nigeria. Looking to evacuate its American assets in the area, the U.S. military is sending squads in on extraction missions.
Enter the Navy SEAL team led by the gruff Lt. Waters (Willis), who are out to rescue Dr. Lena Hendricks, an American-by-marriage Italian doctor (Monica Bellucci), and, if they’ll leave, a priest and two nuns. When Waters, meeting Lena for the first time says, “I’m here for you, the priest and the two nuns,” it sounds like the setup for a bad joke in which those three people walk into a bar.
Instead, they go bungling in the jungle, along with the people of the village where Lena is a doctor, without whom she refuses to leave. Waters, though, doing anything to get Lena out of the area, has falsely promised refuge for the villagers and leaves them behind once they reach their extraction point.
After Lena slaps him, fires off some sure-to-be-blue Italian words and spits in his face, Waters realizes there’s emotion behind his camouflage. Defying orders to do the right thing, Lena, Waters and his team go back, leading the villagers to the safe-harbor country of Cameroon. They must contend, though, with a violent, rapidly advancing army of Nigerian rebels who don’t take kindly to the American presence.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) does generate some suspense early in a scene that wisely relies on sound effects because the picture is so dark, you can hardly see anything. But the dialogue and scenarios quickly collapse into matter-of-fact stuff, free of any shade or nuance about the politics behind this particular conflict or how the soldiers really feel about their mission. In the wake of how relentlessly grim this movie is, the rah-rah speeches get old quickly.
Tears fares best when it quietly focuses on the faces of the Nigerians. When initially left behind, their looks reflect disappointment, but not necessarily surprise at what the soldiers have done. And the sadness on their faces when encountering a village that’s been “ethnically cleansed” is significantly more powerful than the screenplay’s drum-banging dialogue.
Naturally, Tears of the Sun ends with a slickly filmed battle, but it likely will only wake you up just in time for the overlong resolution. It’s filled with warm fuzziness from the Nigerian people, who apparently have forgotten how the U.S. military provided the evil rebels with their munitions in the first place. But a bittersweet ending where Willis isn’t deified just wouldn’t be overblown and dramatic enough.