When the Nigerian government collapses, an evil dictator takes over the African country, wiping out innocent civilians with his every move. The U.S. government, sensing impending doom, sends in a special-ops team, led by Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis), to find an American doctor (Monica Bellucci, "Brotherhood of the Wolf"), and bring her out of the country in order to avoid an international incident. When the doctor refuses to leave with out her remaining patients, Waters is forced to choose between completing his mission or trying to save the helpless refugees.
"Tears of the Sun" (IMDb listing) might have the external glow of an anti-war film, but it doesn't cross much into those areas. It's a film about the personal choices of honor, and the integrity those decisions need to be seen to completion. Following up his work on 2001's Oscar winner "Training Day," director Antoine Fuqua brings this war tale to life with solid performances, vivid casualty visuals and an overriding objective to showcase the military heroism that you and I might normally not be privy to. He succeeds more than he fails, and "Tears" is a sturdy enough war film that never quite develops into something grand.
In taking on these themes of honor, "Tears" dips into the same ambiance Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" held, which falls somewhere between saccharine and principled. I'm all for films about the big guys helping the little guys, as long as the pictures don't pat themselves on the back too much for their efforts. "Tears," sadly, falls into this category once too often. Director Fuqua shines too bright a light on the team's noble intentions, taking time away from some much needed character development with Bellucci's doctor role, and fleshing out the other members of the team who aren't played by Bruce Willis. There's quiet, respectful attention placed on these men, and there are scenes like the one in which the African-American member of the special-ops force declares that he's going to fight the good fight "for my people." Fuqua loses integrity in that moment with such a heavy underlining of motivations.
Fuqua, who has always been a better visualist than a storyteller, finds solid ground in the picture's third act, which culminates into full-out war between the Americans and Nigerians. This is a spectacular sequence, which plays off the "Nigerian" landscape beautifully (the film was shot in Hawaii), and provides another stunning glimpse into the dark heart of violent conflict. This tale is substantially more cinematic in structure than "Black Hawk Down," which was wholly based on procedural terms. This helps "Tears" in gaining audience sympathy, and also shedding some light on the dual nature of the modern-day soldier.
Making her American film debut, Italian actress Monica Bellucci (soon to be seen in "The Matrix Reloaded") is wasted in a role that asks nothing more of her than to look scared and cry every five minutes. This is disappointing work, as the role is a step forward for the sexbomb actress, but she is not allowed to take it anywhere. The star is Willis (who is typically frosty, but good here), and the film's focus stays on him for the most part. There is a strong supporting cast to round out the film, but with Willis front and center, they aren't allowed to make much of an impression.
The priorities within "Tears of the Sun" are a bit out of wack, but the film is proficient enough to work. There's plenty of eye candy for the war-engagement enthusiasts out there, and the message of military compassion is sorely needed in these tense times of global conflict.
Filmfodder Grade: B