Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 27, 2009)
In the eyes of filmmakers, it appears that Africa has become the new Vietnam. Since movies have beaten the conflict in Southeast Asia to death and also seem to have wrung all the juice out of World War II, they need new fodder.
This led to 2003’s Tears of the Sun. Here’s David Williams’ synopsis from his original review of the flick:
“In Tears of the Sun, director Antoine Fuqua’s follow-up to Training Day, we meet Navy SEAL A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis), a lieutenant who’s sent into revolutionary Nigeria to rescue physician Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci). Given orders from his commander (Tom Skerritt) to extract all ‘critical personnel’, Waters heads into the jungle to get Kendricks – an American by marriage – and some of her missionaries out of the country before some rebels come knocking on her door and slaughter everyone in sight.
”However, when Waters and his crew get to Kendricks’ jungle hospital, they find that she doesn’t want to leave without the Nigerians that she has been caring for at her mission. In order to get the doctor to leave, Waters tells her that if they will march to the helicopter landing/rescue zone, that he and his men will make sure that everyone is extracted. However, he neglects to tell her that he’s lying.
”When the group arrives at the loading zone, Waters and his men try to jostle Doctor Kendricks on to the chopper so they can get out of heck out of Dodge, Nigerian patients/refugees be dammed. However, when Lieutenant Waters looks back and sees the natives waving goodbye at them, he has an unexpected change of heart and he begins loading old women and young children on the chopper to get them to safety first. He claims that he will lead the remainder of the group to safety himself – on foot – and for one of the first times in his military career, his conscience overrides his primary mission.
”Against the wishes of his commander, Waters and his men head back into the dangerous jungles, all while a militia group pursues them. Along the way, we see the atrocities that are occurring in the country, and the dangers to Waters and his group increase because of the humanitarian tone the mission has now adopted. Will Waters and his men see the group to safety or will the rebels track them down and slaughter them before they can rendezvous with the other Americans?”
Sign number one that Tears of the Sun is a typically Hollywood take on its subject: Bruce Willis. Ever since the original Die Hard, I’ve liked Willis, and I thought he brought something different to the standard action hero. However, he’s not the actor you want if you desire a full-dimensional performance. That doesn’t mean Willis is incapable of higher level work, but unless pushed, he’ll fall back on his usual glower and smirk.
Apparently Fuqua didn’t challenge Willis, for the actor sticks with the tried and true. He displays little subtlety as he keeps Waters stalwart and stoic. The movie wants us to believe he has a character arc as he goes from playing the obedient soldier to standing up for what he thinks is right, but his path is so utterly predictable that it doesn’t seem like anything changes. Willis scowls to convey the seriousness of the situation and does little more.
Sign number two: Monica Bellucci. I can suspend disbelief about any number of things, but even I find the presence of a young, hot female doctor in the middle of nowhere to be more than a slight stretch. Is it possible that someone like her would be in a position like this? Sure, I suppose, but the concept remains unlikely. I don’t mean to imply that all medical workers in tough situations are Bea Arthur clones, but the chances remain slim.
We find a babe like Bellucci for one reason alone: she’s hot, and she gives the movie some eye candy. It doesn’t hurt that the sexy doc conveniently wears her shirts unbuttoned halfway down her chest. Hey, it’s hot in the jungle - gotta cool down somehow, right? Her boobs play such a prominent role in the proceedings that they deserve a screen credit of their own.
Sign number three: Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci. Take aging but still handsome Actor A, place him with young, sexy flavor of the month Actress B, and you have Inevitable Movie Romance Z. Sun makes their eventual connection absolutely inevitable.
Not only is there no reason to cast two attractive leads without romance in the end, but also the movie uses the conventional methods to tell us they’ll wind up snogging. The pair are totally different personalities and they initially dislike and resent each other. That’s the ultimate Hollywood shorthand for eventual romance. Granted, the movie keeps this affair extremely understated and implied, but it’s there nonetheless.
Sign number four: with all the dramatic events that have occurred - and continue to take place - in Africa, the filmmakers prefer to offer fictional material. Black Hawk Down had its flaws, but at least it went with factual topics. Sun takes the truth as inspiration but otherwise branches into made-up characters and issues.
Why bother? At best, this seems pointless, and at worst, it appears dishonest since many filmmakers will assume the flick comes based on fact. With all the real-life events on which to base a movie, why waste our time with fiction?
Granted, one could argue the same about war flicks like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps I see a difference simply because those movies were good while Sun is not. Besides, they had a point to make, whereas the goal of Sun appears fuzzier.
Sign number five: Like most movies about African conflicts, it prefers to focus on white people. This made more sense in Black Hawk Down due to the particular story it meant to tell, but here it doesn’t seem as logical. The movie would work better if it dealt with the African issues and used the Americans as a sidebar rather than the opposite approach. Sun treats the Africans as props for its little morality tale, and they never emerge as anything more than stock characters.
The lack of subtlety really becomes a problem. During the opening, the film almost hints at nuances among the African leaders, as it implies the deposed - and soon assassinated - president has blood on his own hands. However, these shades of gray quickly vanish and the film immediately becomes a tale of good versus evil with nothing between those extremes. This gets worse as it progresses, especially when we find a silly, soap operatic plot twist toward the end.
Actually, the film gets a little more interesting during its third act simply because it finally pushes out some action. I won’t criticize Sun for its absence of action, or at least I wouldn’t slam it because I might have expected more war in this war flick. It doesn’t need to be Ryan and pummel us with bloodshed.
However, the lack of firepower becomes more noticeable due to the tedium of the rest of the story. The climax highlights this because the big ending battle really works quite well. When director Fuqua stops trying to involve us in his bland characters and just lets the bullets fly, the film comes to life.
But it’s too little, too late. I wouldn’t call Tears of the Sun a terrible movie, for it lacks any elements that seem truly poor. The acting’s perfectly passable, and the story has some potential. The film looks good and offers totally professional production values. Unfortunately, it rarely rises above mediocrity and embraces too many stock Hollywood techniques to become winning.
Note that this DVD presents the “Director’s Extended Cut” of Tears of the Sun. According to the case, it includes “over 24 minutes of never-before-seen footage”. Maybe my math is rusty, but I can’t figure out this claim. The original flick ran 121 minutes, while the DC lasts 142 minutes. Last time I looked, 142 minus 121 equals 21, not 24. Perhaps the DC drops some footage from the theatrical edition and replaces it with new material, but that seems unlikely.
So what do we get with the added minutes? That’s an excellent question that I can’t answer. I never saw the theatrical cut and despite many attempts, I found nothing on the Internet that detailed the changes. However, I have a feeling that the extra footage simply reinstates the deleted scenes from the prior DVD.