Tears of the Sun
Bruce in the jungle. He go shooty bang-bangs.
Some time ago I remember reading that the novel Tears of the Sun had been optioned with an eye to adapting it into a workable premise for Die Hard 4. It was to reunite Bruce Willis with Armageddon co-star Ben Affleck and would see John McLane captured by guerilla soldiers during a rafting trip down some river or another. I shit you not. Given that the movie we see before us bears such little resemblance to this nonsensical series of electrical impulses masquerading as an idea in some exec's head, it's hard to imagine just how bad that movie might have been. This is not to say that Antoine Fuqua's much-heralded follow up to Oscar-baiting debut Training Day is a shining example of cinematic genius, just that it's better than watching a fat, bald old man swing through trees whilst firing a bow and arrow yelling "yippee-ki-yay!" at every possible opportunity. Just...
Willis is Lt. A.K. Waters, a hard-nosed Special Ops soldier whose unit is sent into Nigeria to rescue American doctor Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci). With murderous rebel forces bearing down on their position, it's imperative the boys evacuate her from the jungle mission where she works pronto, only the stubborn fool will only go if Waters promises to take 70 refugees with them. Being the devious sod he is, Waters agrees, only to leave the Nigerians behind as his unit and the good Dr. make their escape onboard the waiting choppers. Understandably pissed, Lena has a hefty dose of salt rubbed in her wound as the choppers fly over what is left of the mission, whereupon they are witness to the aftermath of the rebel massacre.
Doing his best "unsettled but professionally uncaring" grimace, our Bruce endures an unspoken internal conflict of morals before ordering the choppers around, much to the dismay of his men and his commanding officer Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt). He bundles those unfit for the journey to the Cameroon border on the whirlybirds, before setting back off into the jungle with his unit, fifty-odd shambling refugees and a decidedly grateful Lena in tow. Bet he'll be in trouble when he gets back home, eh?
There are many interesting ideas floating around in Tears of the Sun, the greatest of which being when should a professional soldier stop following orders and start following his conscience? Faced with a multitude of possibilities, director Fuqua proves why Training Day was such a fluke by allowing his rookie nerves to fold under studio pressure, inexplicably channeling the film down the route of bog-standard pursuit movie.
Following a potentially intriguing first act, very little is made of the last hour or so, leaving this reviewer wondering why the delayed release when, in spite of the gulf conflict, there is little if anything in this picture to incite any degree of public dissent. My chief gripe with the film, forgiving the general mundanity of plot, lies with the contemptuous lack of character depth. Waters' unit are a shallow bunch of gung-ho, macho righteous types who offer scant resistance to their commander's turn of heart, despite the fact it puts them in no small amount of additional danger. It's "I'm with you, Cap" and "hey, you know me!" clich?s all the way, skimming over any potential depth an internal conflict within the ranks might have generated. Likewise the characters of Waters and Lena, their dynamic and also their individual internal conflicts are cackhandedly dealt with in similarly superficial fashion.
Willis is as capable as always when it comes to grimacing, looking and sounding pissed off, and emptying lead into the jungle. Rather than being given much difficult dialogue or troublesome thesping scenarios, though, he escapes relatively unscathed in terms of acting honours purely because his character is simply not asked to do anything else. There's no personal quest or psychological mountain for him to overcome between the jungle and the border; just a shit-load of Nigerian rebels. In a similar vein Bellucci, whom we at least learn lost her husband to rebels some time previously, is criminally pretty much put out to pasture once the firefights kick in. A talented actress there can be no doubt, but her complete lack of material here makes The Matrix Reloaded look like an Oscar contender for scriptwriting.
Even an attempt at throwing some intrigue into the mix halfway through by revealing a mole in the group is soon glossed over. One of the group also turns out to be the son of the country's murdered tribal leader. Big deal. The US military still don't give a hoot, and it's unlikely you will too since the implication of danger is always far enough away for us not to expect the rightful heir to Nigeria's throne to ever take a bullet.
Once you take into account the fact that the politics of Nigeria don't even get a mention, the military significance of the tale becomes somewhat benign, rendering the chase aspect of the picture essentially the same as that of, dare I say it, Wrong Turn; at least Tears of the Sun is not home to any un-scary "scary" bits. For a film that so obviously has designs on saying something profound, it comes as quite a surprise to find such a lack of depth from almost every aspect of the picture. Even the score is decidedly unremarkable, sounding sufficiently militaristic during the gun battles yet failing to stir any kind of emotion outwith the chaos.
Still, it's not all bad. If you ignore the setting, vague moral pretensions and all-round vacuous nature of the flick there's a slick enough chase movie underneath that will satisfy some of you to some degree. Whilst not exactly We Were Soldiers or Saving Private Ryan in nature, the gunfights are occasionally visceral enough to please, whilst the implication of rape and torture by the rebels never reaches a level of exploitation many other films may have seen fit to dredge purely for the sake of it.
But then maybe that's the whole problem. Fuqua seems scared to commit to any one particular aspect of the film, ultimately forgetting to challenge the audience at all. This is neither warlike enough for the adults, nor adrenaline-fuelled to a degree that would appeal to the younger audience. Does Waters manage to get the refugees to safety? Do his men all make it? Will the soldiers get backup from Rhodes? Will anyone remember much about this film a week later? I'll leave it to you to come up with your own answers. In the meantime, my suspicion that Training Day wasn't all it was cracked up to be has here been given credible proof. Fuqua had better put his foot down for the next one.
From my headquarters on Isla Apathetica I award this movie 2 out of 5 Disko Units.
Monica Bellucci (Dr. Lena Kendricks)
Tom Skerritt (Capt. Bill Rhodes)
Cole Hauser (James 'Red' Atkins)
Eamonn Walker (Ellis 'Zee' Pettigrew)
Nick Chinlund (Michael 'Slo' Slowenski)
Charles Ingram (Demetrius 'Silk' Owens)
Paul Francis (Danny 'Doc' Kelley)