Movie review, 'Tears of the Sun '

EntertainmentMoviesArmed ForcesDefenseDeathCole HauserTom Skerritt

"Tears of the Sun" is another gung-ho Bruce Willis action movie, this time featuring Willis as a plucky Navy SEAL lieutenant trying to shepherd an idealistic doctor and a group of native villagers to safety through the war-torn Nigerian jungle. Willis gives his standard glower-and-grimace action hero performance, but he doesn't smirk as much as usual, probably because "Tears" rarely tries to strike romantic sparks between the gruff lieutenant and the comely medico.

Instead, this mega-budget movie stays on battle track. It's full of pyrotechnics and chases, and the actors in Willis' SEAL unit (Cole Hauser, Eamonn Walker of "Oz," Johnny Messner and others) all glower like their boss while the African jungles pop and blaze around them. The action is certainly incendiary. At one point, a whole battlefield full of men suddenly explodes before our eyes. And Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") scatters firefights and skirmishes liberally throughout the picture. "Tears of the Sun" is fairly entertaining and often exciting, expertly done in a way, but not especially engaging or new, and not as emotionally involving as its title suggests.

This movie lacks much of the human dimension and emotional heft that its makers obviously want. The title hints at a tale of suffering Africa, and that's probably part of the intention -- an evocation of the brutality and devastation of modern civil warfare. But this is neither "The African Queen" nor "Black Hawk Down." It's neither an exotic wartime romance focusing on sparks between gritty A.K. Waters (Willis) and Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), nor is it much of a serious portrayal of the turbulence in modern Africa.

It isn't "Die Hard in the Jungle" either, though maybe that wouldn't have been such a bad idea. Shot in Hawaii, "Tears" is supposedly set in the midst of an African conflagration vaguely reminiscent of the Nigerian civil war. The backdrop is spectacular: lush tropical forests, towering mountains and thick undergrowth dotted with primitive villages and combed ruthlessly by deadly combatants.

Pursuing Waters' unit and the Nigerians they're protecting is a murderous small army under the command of the new dictatorial regime -- cold-faced killers in sunglasses, viciously slaughtering their way through nearby villages. At one point, the militia swoops into Dr. Kendricks' village after she's gone and massacres the remaining populace, carrying off half the film's main women roles and prestige supporting actors (Fionnula Flanagan as Sister Grace, Cornelia Hayes O'Herlihy as Sister Siobhan, and Pierrino Mascarino as Father Gianni). It's depressing and also a sign the villains mean business.

Safely airborne with the protesting Dr. Kendricks (who wanted to save all the villagers), Waters makes the snap decision to return and save the remaining villagers, against the orders of his glib Navy superior, Capt. Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt). This is the movie's moment of moral choice; from then on, we are meant to see Waters as a true hero, endangering himself and bucking the system to save innocent lives. His men, whom he allows a democratic vote, make the choice as well. And eventually they discover the secret reason why the rebel marauders so relentlessly chase them.

"Tears of the Sun" reminded me of the 1955 John Wayne battle movie "Blood Alley," directed by William Wellman, in which Duke was a gruff boat captain shepherding Lauren Bacall and her group of threatened Chinese villagers to safety in Hong Kong. That movie, however routinely and unconvincingly, did focus on romantic tensions between Wayne and Bacall. This one gets swallowed up in pyrotechnics and action formulas. Every once in a while, Fuqua gets a heart-tugging moment or a searing close-up of a victim, and he stages one devastating tableau of the aftermath of that massacre. But he never gets enough of the emotional depth he clearly wants.

Mostly, "Tears of the Sun" is run-and-shoot stuff, expertly done in its way, but definitely not as original or surprising as Fuqua's last movie, "Training Day," or as entertaining as "Die Hard." It swivels back and forth between star-vehicle conventions and an attempt to engage the modern world, but its realism is mostly skin deep. It's easy to accept Willis as a Navy SEAL leader, or rebellious blue-collar hero, because we've seen him do this stuff before. And some of his supporting SEALs, including Hauser as "Red" and Walker as "Zee," tough it up effectively. But it seems strange to cast Bellucci, the radiant Italian bombshell whom Francis Coppola introduced in "Dracula," as a doctor and American citizen (by marriage) and then turn her into the movie's witness and moral goad. Shouldn't they have kept Flanagan's Sister Grace alive for that?

Flashy on the surface, "Tears of the Sun" is shallow at the heart. Perhaps we wouldn't be asking any more of it except for the fact that the title and the occasional affecting scenes expose deeper aspirations. Maybe the problem is that "Tears" tries to show us simultaneously that war is thrilling and that war is hell. It ends up stranded in the middle, at war with itself.

2 1/2 stars (out of 4) "Tears of the Sun"
Directed by Antoine Fuqua; written by Alex Lasker, Patrick Cirillo; photographed by Mauro Fiore; edited by Conrad Buff; production designed by Naomi Shohan; music by Hans Zimmer; produced by Michael Lobell, Arnold Rifkin, Ian Bryce. A Columbia Pictures release of a Revolution Studios production; opens Friday, March 7. Running time: 1:58. MPAA rating: R (strong war violence, some brutality and language).
Lt. A.K. Waters -- Bruce Willis
Dr. Lena Kendricks -- Monica Bellucci
James "Red" Atkins -- Cole Hauser
Capt. Bill Rhodes -- Tom Skerritt
Ellis "Zee" Pettigrew -- Eamonn Walker Sister Grace -- Fionnula Flanagan

Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.

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