At first, Tears of the Sun comes on like Black Hawk Down. Bruce Willis’ Lt. A.K. Waters and his Special Ops squad are given a mission that seems more routine than impossible. It seems, for a reason that only becomes clear near the end, that the army of a rebel warlord du jour is moving toward a certain medical outpost in Nigeria’s heart of darkness, and Waters’ duty is to pluck Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci) and her support staff out of harm’s way. Of course, we know as the squad’s chopper lifts off from the deck of an aircraft carrier and into the black of night that these things never go smoothly.
The mission first runs up against the stumbling block of Dr. Hendricks’ will: She won’t leave her people — 70 villagers, men, women and children — behind to the circling wolves. So Waters marches them through thick jungle toward their assigned pickup coordinates. And as the enemy doggedly pursues them, things don’t seem so routine any more.
Waters manages to get Hendricks aboard a chopper and to leave her charges stranded behind. Day breaks as they cruise above a scene that echoes news footage of the Rwandan genocide. Huts blaze, trailing black smoke up to the sky; corpses lie strewn between them like carelessly discarded rag dolls; and rebel soldiers increase the body count by routinely slaughtering more innocents with their Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Waters is presented with a dramatic choice: Does he just do his assigned job, as the military butchers do theirs below? Or does he commit himself and his men, out-manned and outgunned, to becoming destroying angels in an attempt to save a world that already seems to have gone to hell? The answer is obvious, as melodrama and romance bleed through the light armor of Tears of the Sun’s war-flick veneer.
To the film’s credit, Waters is more than the guy in the white hat. With his shaved head and understandably world-weary attitude, he recalls Willis’ Butch of Pulp Fiction. He kills only if it’s required, takes no joy in it and somehow his implicit heart of gold seems to grace him with a bulletproof decency.
Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) also manages to generate pathos for the Nigerian refugees and rarely makes them pathetic. He portrays them more as fighting survivors.
But Fuqua’s villains don’t fair as well. Idriss Sadique (Malick Bowens), Waters’ enemy counterpart, has none of shadings that give our hero a human depth. Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo’s script doesn’t offer Fuqua or Bowens much to work with. But Bowens does manage to look like an ebony hybrid of the Terminator and a Doberman pinscher while charging the screen with a mostly tacit viciousness.
As far as romance goes, Tears is a mixed bag. Bellucci mostly reins in her runaway sex appeal, but gives it enough rope to add tension and depth to her character’s equivocal relationship with Waters. At times, though, her immaculately colored lips and heaving cleavage as she trudges through the jungle burden the suspension of disbelief.
In the end, Tears verges almost on a grim fairy tale, albeit a heavily armed one. That’s not necessarily a problem, but Fuqua’s direction could be. This film has the high-glamour Hollywood gloss that he spent years polishing as a hired gun for commercial clients like Reebok, and Fuqua (whose debut feature, The Replacement Killers, was an homage to Hong Kong action director John Woo) quotes and paraphrases Apocalypse Now.
But as Waters becomes what you could call the anti-Kurtz, his military blackface smudges away as he chooses to do what’s right rather than just follow orders. And whenever the Nigerian jungle isn’t just a murkier stand-in for Apocalypse’s heart of darkness, the light of day exposes its killing fields. It’s an iconography that verges on racism in a film ironically shot by an African-American. But that may just suit its neocolonial narrative — one that’s essentially about a great white hunter and a sexy, transgendered Albert Schweitzer bonding together and risking death to save the natives’ fat from their own fire.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.