Tears of the Sun (review)

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Action on a World Stage

Can we just send Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci to Iraq? Cuz then we’ll know that the Right things will be done and that everything will turn out Okay in the short term and that Love will Shine in the eyes of the Beautiful and Noble brown people of Iraqi and, most importantly, that we won’t have to deal with the possibly ugly aftermath of intervention because that all happens after the credits are over and the lights come up and we’ve gone home.

I can’t decide whether Tears of the Sun is American Imperialist propaganda or Lefty Humanistic propaganda or just a better-than-average action movie with a political backdrop. Maybe it’s a better-than-average action movie with a slightly more ambitious and ambiguous political backdrop than we usually see in these kinds of flicks, one that recognizes that the real world is more complicated than any of us want to believe it is, and that none of the world’s great problems can be solved in two hours but that we might make a dent in its endemic suffering.

I just don’t know. Tears is as unsatisfying as watching CNN for eight hours straight or reading the newspaper cover to cover. It’s like coming in in the middle of an impossible situation and getting out before it’s resolved and fearing that it’s too tangled up to ever really be over. But that kind of dissatisfaction isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a movie.

Dr. Lena Hendricks (Bellucci: Brotherhood of the Wolf, Under Suspicion), an American by marriage, runs a refugee hospital in remote Nigeria, tending those injured by ongoing civil war. When a coup heats up the region, the Navy starts evacuating Americans, and S.E.A.L. lieutenant A.K. Waters (Willis: Hart’s War, Bandits) is ordered to sneak in, remove Hendricks, and get her back to the safety of a U.S. aircraft carrier off the coast. She won’t leave without her patients, though, or at least the ones who are mobile. He can’t take them with — they aren’t American and certainly aren’t covered by his orders. They butt heads… a lot.

Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo have crafted a script that’s downright minimalist, and director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) brilliantly turns this dialogue-sparse blueprint into an actors’ showcase. Willis here, for the first time, combines his movie-star quality and character-actor talents, and Bellucci — in her first major English-language role, warming us up for her appearances in the Matrix sequels — combines passion and steely strength with a lack of self-consciousness; the gal can act. Together, they butt those heads and compromise and keep secrets and grudgingly alter their attitudes with nary a word spoken between them — instead, their relationship develops through cold shoulders and flinches and scowls giving way to a willingness to merely make eye contact and tolerate physical touch. And Waters’ team and Hendricks’ patients — barely introduced, some unnamed — are all the more real for having their motivations and desires and fears all but unexpressed except in their faces and in their bodies.

Willis has the biggest job, though, as Waters’ conscience wins out over his duty, and we see that happen almost entirely in his eyes and in the curl of his mouth… until, it seems, Fuqua and his screenwriters lose their own trust in themselves and let their story descend into, if not cliché itself, then overtness and blatancy. We were getting it — the moral quandaries, the impossibility of remaining detached when anonymous bodies become people in your eyes, the difficulty in admitting to yourself that you were wrong. We didn’t need it all spelled out.

The filmmakers seem to have lost heart, or perhaps just lost direction, toward the end, and maybe they were just as uncomfortable with how things were turning out as the audience is when it’s over. Things need to be wrapped up fairly neatly onscreen, particularly in a Hollywood film — we need the Feel Good, we need to be able to walk out and not want to slit our wrists — and yet they know that doesn’t sit quite right with the realpolitik they were trying to navigate, either. And maybe we need the schizophrenic sense, too, that we — Us, the Good Guys, the Right Side, the U.S. of A. — get to have it both ways. Waters was defying orders. He was the cowboy. Maybe we like the idea of an official policy of Not Butting Our Nose In Where It Doesn’t Belong but also riding to the rescue — unofficially, of course, via a Captain Kirk or a John McClane — when suddenly All Those Funny Foreigners become real, hurting people to us.

I dunno. It’s too confusing. Can’t the world be as cut- and- dried as even an equivocal and uncertain- about- itself Hollywood movie? Like I said: Can’t we just send Bruce Willis to Iraq to make things right?

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