"Tears of the Sun" is an interesting phenomenon. It's not a terrible movie; it's well-made and well-acted; but there's just something about it that's ... well ... unremarkable.
Bruce Willis plays a grizzled Navy SEAL lieutenant in what the TV spots call his best movie since 'Die Hard.' Sorry, folks, but that's a tough one to top. "Tears" is a very serious-toned war story set in present-day Nigeria, where a bloody ethnic cleansing is taking place at the hands of a military regime.
Willis and his eight-man team are airlifted out of the capital city along with all other American personnel, but are sent right back into the equatorial jungle to find and bring back Lena Kendricks, an American doctor working at a mission hospital. Trouble is, she won't leave unless they agree to take the 70 native workers and patients at the mission along as well, on a perilous trek through the rain forest to the Cameroon border.
The heart of the story is the struggle Willis undergoes as he tries to comply with a lifetime of special operations training and follow orders while his conscience tells him to do otherwise.
"Tears of the Sun" plays to audiences on a "need to know" basis. We get zero background on Willis' character. What's his military record like? Does he have a family? Has he ever been in love? The decisions he makes in the field are the only way we get any insight into his personality behind the SEAL gear. But even with fewer lines than in any other role, except maybe "Unbreakable," Willis is skilled enough to let a tiny bit of humanity show through the camouflage makeup.
In direct contrast, Italian actress Monica Belluci plays the humanitarian doctor whose only concern is to save as many lives as possible. Fortunately, screenwriters Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo chose not to set her as a headstrong, obstinate match for Willis, a tired cliche if there ever was one. She's dedicated and passionate, but also realistic and soft around the edges.
And that's about all there is to this movie. Viewers barely get to know the supporting members of the SEAL team by sight or nickname before the last bloody battle, and only one or two members of the refugee group have any lines at all. Director Antoine Fuqua, who last directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar in "Training Day," spends a lot of time taking in the lush rain forest (shot in Hawaii, not Africa) and honing in on the atrocities committed by the rebel militia.
Some might see the issue of abandoning orders to follow one's conscience as an anti-war comment precisely targeted to hit Americans like a smart bomb at this precarious point in our foreign relations. But read the various studio gossip floating around prior to the film's release, and you'll find that the project went through several title changes (no one quite knows what 'tears of the sun' is supposed to mean, anyway) because of negotiations with the studios and Bruce Willis' production company, and its release was delayed more than a few times for a variety of business reasons. In the big picture, "Tears" is just a Bruce Willis vehicle, an intelligent "guy" movie designed to compete with the romantic comedies now playing.
And in case there was any question, the movie's moral is clearly defined by the quote by Edmund Burke that appears after the last scene fades to black: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Two and a half stars out of four