There's more to 'Tears' than mindless action

A misleading marketing campaign is going to either help or harm "Tears of the Sun" at the box office. But whatever the financial fallout, the fact remains that audiences who watched trailers and commercials for this Bruce Willis vehicle are going to sit through a different picture than they'd been led to believe.

The advance clips show the star dressed in military gear and exhibiting his traditional bad-ass squint as shots of fighter planes zoom by. A quote from a dubious media source proclaims it's "Bruce Willis' best action movie since 'Die Hard.'"

Yet "Tears of the Sun" has much more in common thematically with "Three Kings" than "Behind Enemy Lines." And while the movie does have its gung-ho moments of carnage and detonations -- especially during a somewhat disappointing finale -- there are some real issues at play in this absorbing drama.

The first clue resides in the disturbing footage that begins the piece, featuring actual newsreel clips of troops gunning down civilians in Nigeria. As these staggering images roll, press reports explain that a coup has toppled the country's Democratic government, and a military dictator has executed the royal family.

Cut to "somewhere off the coast of Africa" and a Navy SEALs team is being briefed on an American aircraft carrier. Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Willis) and his squad are dispatched to the Nigerian jungles to extract a Doctors Without Borders physician named Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci). An American by marriage, the Italian doctor refuses to leave behind the injured refugees in her care, even though a rebel force is spreading through the region and dealing out little mercy.

A question of duty versus morality is thrust upon the SEALs as they must decide how far they're willing to go to save these abandoned people.

Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") juggles a lot of ideas in "Tears of the Sun." This movie has enough social commentary and left wing politicizing to satisfy the California crowd, and its flattering portrayal of the military and adulation for combat hardware should appease the Texas contingent. This makes for some unusual thematic bedfellows, but the result is compelling.

The best moment in "Tears of the Sun" comes during a moral crossroads for the SEALs as they are sneaking their extended group toward the border of Cameroon. They happen across a village that is being pillaged by rebel forces, and they choose to engage to prevent further atrocities.

Rating: ** 1/2(R)Language, strong war violence1 hour, 58 minutesSouthwind Twelve, 3433 Iowa

There is a palpable sense of tension, terror and revulsion in this lingering sequence. Few words are exchanged, but one can just see it in the eyes of the Americans that their objective to remain "uninvolved" gets swept aside for good.

"It's been so long since I did a good thing -- a right thing," the Willis' lieutenant confesses to the doctor.

Fuqua never quite matches the cinematic power of this central incident, despite a shrewd plot twist that adds political urgency to the mission. Unfortunately, once the movie becomes fully immersed in its shoot-em-up ending, it ceases to be of much interest.

At least the closing battles are staged well. Credit goes to Fuqua for having some of the least "Hollywood deaths" of any recent combat effort. There are no slow-motion fatalities or melodramatic last words -- the mortally wounded go from living to lifeless in an instant.

One can't really fault the film's climax. Few action pictures end quietly. However, there is little excuse for the epilogue, which is genuinely awful.

As the surviving Africans find their way to the border, they begin to thank the battered Americans ... and this goes on forever, buoyed by tearful closeups and rousing music. There is something uncomfortable (and borderline xenophobic) witnessing the "natives" worship these white men like ivory-carved gods.

These images are more befitting a John Wayne war picture from the 1950s than one helmed by a black director in 2003.


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