Tears of the Sun Review
Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua's Tears Of The Sun has often been cited as a one-note action flick riding on the back of the terrible true-life atrocities still being committed across various strife-torn African nations. Detractors point to the Rambo-type saviours of Bruce Willis' Lt. Waters and his Seal team going in like the American World Police and saving the day ... again. But that is actually a gross misinterpretation of the themes the film tries to explore. Admittedly, Tears is a terrific combat movie and the bad guys are mown down left, right and centre whilst the moral standpoint of the good guys is beyond reproach, but there is actually a lot more going on in here than the filmmaker is given credit for.
“I would've done the same thing in your position. I wouldn't have trusted me either.”
Set in a fictionalised African state - although it may as well be Sierra Leone - Tears Of The Sun is the story of a Special Forces team who are sent into the civil war-ravaged hotspot to rescue an American doctor who has been acting as a missionary to the stricken population. Played by Monica Belluci, Dr Lena Kendricks has already lost her husband to the vicious rebel uprising but, despite the horrors going on around her, she still refuses to leave without her charges, all terrified refugees fleeing from the carnage. With Lt. Waters arriving just in the nick of time and helicopters en route to pick them up, confrontations arise between him and the courageous and selfless doctor. He has a mission to complete and that mission didn't state that he should rescue anybody other than the US citizen in question. But, after dragging her bodily onto the aircraft, the departing team are forced to witness, first hand, the fate that awaits the people they have left behind, defenceless, in the jungle when their flyby reveals that those who remained at the missionary's campsite - its nurses, patients and villagers - have been mercilessly slaughtered. Although seasoned veterans of conflicts around the world, something snaps in the team at the sight of this senseless massacre and Waters orders the helicopters to turn around. Now faced with a much larger party of refugees and only a handful of men, Waters must lead everyone to safety over the Cameroon border ... which means an exhausting trek through the jungle and the terrifying prospect of the barbaric militia, who are hot on their heels, catching up with, and then overwhelming them.
Although sounding like the standard plot of a lot of action movies, Tears Of The Sun takes an incredibly sombre and dark approach to the material, letting the true horrors of such cruel wars hit home. Gung-ho, it may be ... but only in places and, even then, totally within context. It is also telling that some of Waters' men would prefer to leave - “It's not our war,” one quite rightly exclaims - but their devotion to their commander and their sheer dedication to their death-dealing craft still ensures that they would follow him until the end. Whereas, others on the squad are definitely affected by the things that they have seen here and would willingly lay down their lives if it meant providing the safety of even just one of the refugees.
“It's what they do ... they cut off the breasts of the mothers ... so they can't feed their babies. This is what they do.”
Righteous payback. There's nothing better in a movie than when some vicious evildoer gets his justifiably brutal comeuppance. When done properly, the adrenaline should be pumping and the outcome result in beautifully cathartic, though definitely primal, satisfaction. The thing is, in order for this euphoric, endorphin-rich experience to occur, the evildoer must have done something so totally hideous and despicable as to warrant his pulverising extinction in the first place. Well, Tears Of The Sun certainly manages to garner the set-up with a nerve-shredding and deeply upsetting catalogue of savage stingers. I won't go into the mechanics of it, suffice to say that the ruthless militia have descended upon another helpless village and are putting into practice their own terrifying policy of ensuring that any future generation will be unable to oppose them ... using knives, machetes and leering, sweat-caked grins. The atrocities are guaranteed to shock, but are, at least, tempered by the fact that Willis' team are creeping up behind them with the weight of not just Western outrage at their disposal but also the enormous thirst for our own vicarious vengeance. Fuqua knows what buttons to press and he certainly rams them hard and relentlessly with this set-piece.
Tears Of The Sun was a very personal film for the Training Day director. He immersed himself in imagery and documentation of the atrocities that were taking place in Sierra Leone and other conflicted African states and devoted a lot of time and effort in bringing this upsetting story to the screen. In many respects it is nothing more than another sabre-rattling military epic depicting the might and bravery of American forces on foreign soil, intervening on behalf of a persecuted people and bringing honour and charity to the oppressed. But Antoine Fuqua felt obliged to shine a spotlight upon the virtual genocide that has been going on in this forgotten and ignored corner of the globe. He was savvy enough to realise that to make the unpalatable more user-friendly, he would need a couple of big stars, some thunderous action and a literal sense that the good guys could actually win just one small victory. To get a political statement across, that is actually not too bad a way of doing it.
“What do you want to do with him?”
“Leave him to bleed out ...”
Much has been said about the soldiers' lack of personality and how it becomes a little hard to care about them when the carnage catches up with them. But I feel that this view is missing the point. These guys are highly trained Special Forces operatives who have a job to do. It is meant to be a quick in-and-out mission and even when the parameters of that mission change, there is precious little time for us get to know them as human beings. They're hard, they're dedicated and they're experts at killing. In reality, there would not be an occasion for us, if we were being rescued and herded to safety by them through the jungle, to get to know them. Thus, over the course of a two-hour movie that has to get a lot of primary emotions dealt with - despair, fear, fury and hope amongst them - the film makes the right decision in not going Hollywood on us and dishing out back-stories, haunting revelations or anything more than the cursory rudiments of army buddy-buddy culture. Cole Hauser's “Red” and Eamonn Walker's “Zee” are standouts, however. And when the big fight kicks in, there is some startlingly sweaty-palm heroics from Paul Francis's “Doc” and Chad Smith's Mohawk-haired- “Flea”. Some discover deeper feelings and even grow basic attachments to the refugees, but this is credible in the context of the story and the scenario, and doesn't feel like formulaic box-ticking to me. Even Willis is incredibly reined-in, though his beady-eyes are allowed to convey a variety of feelings brought on by the terrible things that he witnesses. The quietly grave warning about the enemy's rapidly closing disposition sees Willis's wry smirk attempt to break through, but the seriousness of the situation soon has it turn into a grimace. There really isn't a huge arc for his character to travel, but in my opinion, he fulfils the part of a soldier with a huge amount of trouble heading his way in a non-showy and resignedly authentic fashion. And, alongside him, the whole cast maintain a gritty edge throughout.
“These are the guys who won the goddamn Olympics - they've been closing in on us all night.”
It's always good to see Monica Belluci in a film. In Christophe Gans' already awesomely picturesque Les Pacte Des Loups she was one of the rarer works of art on display. She even broke through the computer-tainted green hues of the Matrix for Reloaded and here in the earthy squalor of the blood-soaked jungle, she manages to radiate. However, the dull note of formula shines just as equally through her performance which, although assured and nothing for her to regret, still smacks of studio-enforced glamour-placement. Of course, this is not her fault. Required to supply cultural and spiritual exposition for the benefit of us and the troops she, nevertheless, draws a well-plucked short straw from the stables of Screenplays 'R' Us. Mind you, without her character's involvement there would be no need for Waters and his team to infiltrate and, hence, no story.
“His party is excess cargo.”
“That mean he's not human, sir?”
The duty vs morals conundrum that Lt. Waters and his men face is a point that is authentically laboured by the writers, Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo, and by Fuqua, himself, though sadly it is probably lost on a lot of people. On a Hollywood-enforced diet of staple action movies, it is easy to believe that soldiers in the field can go out on a limb whenever the narrative dictates it, and it would be hard to accept the usual Special Forces hero of yore having a crisis of conscience regarding his orders when confronted by the atrocities that these hardened SEALs witness. So it is particularly rewarding to find a film that deals quite realistically with such a dilemma. In reality, Waters and his men would feel exactly the same way as any other decent human being would if they had to leave innocent people behind to be butchered just because their orders stipulated it. They simply would not have the choice, so the agonising decision that Waters makes in putting his men back into harm's way is no light or easy matter. The truth, as Fuqua even states in his commentary track, is that the dedicated and professional commander who pursues such a course of action, even if it means saving lives, would probably end up facing a court martial. And this element is one of the film's greatest assets. Once the grim decision to do the right thing has been made, the team have lifted themselves up into a sort of Magnificent Seven type of outfit - their actions, live or die from hereon-in, now performed for the greater good and far beyond the tactical or political motivations that ordinarily govern them. Taken for granted in many other genre movies, this aspect feels especially powerful to me here ... and backed by the rage that we all feel towards that machete-wielding junta this errant gallantry is all the more inspirational and satisfying.
Couple this with the fact that our glory-boys are facing overwhelming odds and a race against time, we have the makings of a grand and glorious last stand. And I simply can't resist that - Thermopylae, the Little Bighorn, Isandlwhana, Mogadishu - bravery in the face of unbelievable ferocity.
Fuqua actually revisited this heroic and self-sacrificial ethic once more in the poorly-received King Arthur, but the concept is more relevant and crystalline here. King Arthur was mythical, no matter how gritty the director and actor Clive Owen attempted to make it. But Lt. Waters and his team are from our world and, much like the way that Ridley Scott depicted the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers in Black Hawk Down - to which this film bears a close relationship - the notion of supposedly clean-cut Westerners sent in against a race of indigenous people who seem to thrive on savage rape and murder is especially scary and vicious. Both films are like modern-day equivalents of Custer's 7th Cavalry going in against a numerically superior force that simply doesn't play by the same rules. But, for combat-fans like myself, there are some great moments of derring-do to fixate upon. Flea's about-face of attitude during the running battle sees him ditch his outwardly blasé demeanour to make a simply heroic attempt to save a stranded woman. There are galvanising images of him, wounded and almost out of ammo, making his stand with just his automatic pumping into the hordes of Nigerian soldiers storming at him. The SEALs' advance-to-enemy-fire is brilliantly done and their fighting fall-back is punishing and pulse-pounding stuff, Fuqua allowing for superbly exciting views of the American skirmish line, muzzle-flashes igniting the screen. Fire-and-move tactics are expertly achieved and the cast really look and act the part with dead-on manoeuvres and magazine-changes. Hans Zimmer's powerfully emotive score combines the ethnic quality of his own music for Black Hawk Down, but adds a huge degree of dread and an awesome sense of fatality, echoing the duties of the doomed. If the enemy aren't exactly fleshed-out, this is of no consequence to the tale. We know what they have done and we know what they are capable of. The film treats them as the scum that they are. This is not propaganda, this is fact. To humanise them would have been a mistake. They aren't human.
Whilst this version of the film is not the director's cut - which has already surfaced on SD DVD - all of the extra bits can still be found on this disc in the form of a selection of Deleted Scenes. Whichever version you watch, however, Tears Of The Sun remains a brave attempt to bring the dark heart of man to the screen. And it's got Bruce Willis and Monica Belluci in it. And a lot of guns!