Coming on the heels of “Black Hawk Down” and “We Were Soldiers,” both based on real incidents, Antoine Fuqua’s “Tears of the Sun,” a fictional action picture about a group of US Navy SEALS fighting their way out of hostile territory with a group of terrified natives in tow, comes across as almost contemptibly self-important, phony and hackneyed. It’s slickly made, to be sure, and perhaps its makers are even sincere; but in the current international climate it wears its naively interventionist, egregiously pro-military heart on its sleeve so ostentatiously that it can’t help but seem to be pandering to the contemporary wave of über-patriotism and appealing to the worst vigilante instincts in its viewers. Indeed, one might suspect that the script had originated within the inner recesses of the Bush administration–down to the first quotation from Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” In this context we might paraphrase: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of pictures this bad is for critics not to slam them.”
The script, by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo, is set in a Nigeria beset by civil war: the democratically-elected president has been assassinated, and a rampaging army of Moslem rebel soldiers are busy slaughtering Christian villagers. Into the tempest are dropped a team of SEALS led by gruff, no-nonsense Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) with orders to extract dedicated–and just coincidentally beautiful–Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) before her clinic is overrun. But she refuses to leave without her patients. Determined to fulfill his mission while avoiding further involvement, Waters has them all trek the many miles to the point of the helicopter rendezvous with the intention of leaving everyone but Kendricks behind, but needless to say he has a change of heart; and before long he and his men, having sent the children out of harm’s way on the choppers, are escorting the remaining refugees to safety at the border. (One might inquire why Waters’ superiors make so little of such rank insubordination on his part, but the script doesn’t.) Along the way, the lieutenant and the doctor naturally begin to get close. Unfortunately the ragtag group is relentlessly tracked by a well-armed band of rebels led by a brutal officer; they stop along the way only to catch a few Z’s–and to kill a group of marauders who are enthusiastically abusing and slaughtering the inhabitants of a settlement they happen upon. The reason why the pursuers are so intent on catching up with them is eventually revealed–only to add one more cliche to the pile that’s already littering the handsome (Hawaiian) landscape. The big finale is a pitched battle between the handful of Americans and the hordes of rebels who finally catch up with them. Will Waters’ captain (Tom Skerritt), who’s repeatedly told the lieutenant that he’s on his own, send in help at the last moment? Or will all the Americans and the people they’re protecting perish? (Hint: Have you ever seen a John Wayne war movie?)
In terms of a story about people, “Tears” is a bust. Waters is a stock figure–the laconic man finally goaded into action by the horrors he sees about him–and Willis plays him by barely moving a facial muscle. (Indeed, his growing stubble seems the most dramatic thing about him.) His troops, meanwhile, are pretty much generic he-men (though possessed of soft hearts, of course) with nicknames like “Red” and “Doc” (though none is in the least dwarflike); the only one who stands out from the crowd is the black dude (Eamonn Walker), who naturally sympathizes with the Africans’ plight. Dr. Kendricks is a caricature of the intensely moralistic do-gooder, and Bellucci plays her without subtlety. The various Nigerians in the group being shepherded to safety by the self-sacrificing SEALS are all portrayed as childlike souls anxiously hugging the Americans’ protection. It’s really quite an insulting characterization, as is the simplistic good-versus-evil depiction of the various Nigerian factions. (The scowling rebels are nothing more than artillery fodder; they fall before a modest contingent of straight-shooting Americans the same way that vast numbers of Indians used to in 1940s cavalry epics.)
But the failure of the picture as personal drama is merely an offshoot of its pretensions to making a serious geopolitical statement. Perhaps the script arose from an honest anger over the genocide that occurred in Africa (and eastern Europe as well) while the west watched passively, unable or unwilling to intervene, in past decades. But the answer offered here–that the United States should in effect become policeman to the world, instinctively knowing what’s best for everyone and striding confidently into every trouble spot to solve problems with a benign application of overpowering force–is, especially now, dangerously simplistic. In many respects “Tears of the Sun” is technically impressive–Fuqua stages the action well enough (the more intimate moments, on the other hand, are entirely too slow and solemn), Mauro Fiore’s cinematography brings out the lushness of the locales, and Hans Zimmer’s score, which makes use of African elements, is reasonably subdued. But as it reaches its predictable conclusion, the overwhelming reaction must be one of distaste at seeing so real a human tragedy turned into so false a combination of gung-ho theatrics, pious pontificating and mawkish melodrama.