Tears of the Sun is about how much one man can endure.
True, it's done under the guise of a fairly conventional war movie, in which Bruce Willis, a tough-guy Navy SEAL lieutenant, finds himself playing reluctant hero to a few dozen African refugees trying to escape the genocide ravaging their country (Nigeria, for those who may want to alter their travel plans). On that level, the movie's just short of wonderful, full of action and macho charisma and military might and good guys getting the job done.
But director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriters Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo are after something far more here. Taking their cue from Edmund Burke's famous quote about good men letting bad things happen ("The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing"), they struggle with the question of where to draw the line when it comes to doing the right thing. Their answer - don't draw the line at all - may be a naive oversimplification. But it feels good to believe, if only for the film's two-hour running time.
Willis, who should start getting the accolades he deserves as an actor whose range can match almost anybody's, is A.K. Waters, fresh back from leading his troops on a mission when his superior (Tom Skerritt) breaks the bad news. Things are getting dicey in Nigeria, as a band of rebels has assassinated the president and his family, seized power and is systematically killing off the rival tribes (seemingly half the population). Waters' narrowly defined mission: Lead his team to an American mission hospital and rescue the priest, two nuns and one doctor living there.
But when Waters and his men arrive, things quickly get complicated. The priest and nuns refuse to leave. And the good doctor Hendricks (Monica Bellucci) won't go, either, unless Waters agrees to take along some 70 patients and staff who would otherwise be left behind and almost certainly slaughtered once the rebel troops arrive. Waters says no way, but the doctor remains stubborn, and soon the entire group is threading its way through a couple of miles of jungle, to a clearing where they can be met by helicopter and whisked to safety.
Only Waters has no intention of rescuing anyone except the doctor; his orders were explicit, and he's not one to dismiss such things lightly. But when it's made distressingly clear to him what will happen to these unarmed men and women should they remain in Nigeria, he has a change of heart. Or maybe not so much a change as a clarification.
For reasons they really can't pin down (and when they try, the script gets bogged down in cliches), Waters and his men give in to the moral imperative of the situation. Even if it means disobeying orders and risking their own lives, they can't leave these people behind. So they don't.
In some ways, Tears of the Sun is a throwback to the wartime morality tales of yore, where good and evil were clearly defined and good emerged triumphant because ... well, because good must emerge triumphant. But given the situation in much of Africa, where tribal warfare of this sort is both distressingly commonplace and generally ignored by the rest of the world, it's hard not to be moved by the quandary these soldiers find themselves in.
And there's a sequence about midway through the movie, as the Americans come across a village where a few dozen rebel soldiers are engaging in the sort of ethnic cleansing one would like to think simply isn't possible in a civilized world, that's about as harrowing as anything likely to show up on movie screens this year.
It's a shame the filmmakers weren't always able to resist their baser instincts, throwing in cheap cinematic shots that only take away from the film's nobler urges. Casting the classically beautiful Bellucci as a jungle doctor didn't have to be as silly as it sounds; in fact, she throws herself into the role with gusto, evincing mettle that matches anything Willis can do. But dressing her in a button-down shirt strategically open to the third or fourth button is cheap and gratuitous, undermining both her performance and the movie itself.
Just as unfortunate is the suggestion that the Willis and Bellucci characters are falling for each other as the mission unfolds. Having them make goo-goo eyes at each other generates only snickers from the audience, and suggests that maybe Waters' decision was based as much on his libido as his morality.
But what Tears of the Sun does right, it does very right. The final confrontation between the Marines and the rebels is an exciting, stirring firefight, directed with verve by Fuqua, who understands the sort of release the audience requires, but isn't about to give in to its needs entirely. There's also an unexpected political twist that adds layering to the film's narrative.
Given the world situation today, one can take Tears of the Sun in all manner of ways; some, no doubt, will see it as a love letter to the notion of the United States as the world's police force, a justification for the good guys in America to show up wherever they want and do whatever it takes to create a world to their liking.
But in a weird way, such thinking may be giving the movie too much credit. Tears of the Sun is a film with little on its agenda, save for seeing wrong and wishing it could be stopped as easily as this. Simplistic? Sure, but men can dream.
Sun Score ***
Tears of the Sun
Starring Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rated R (Language, war violence and atrocities)
Released by Columbia Pictures
Time 121 minutes