John Shaft went to Africa, so why shouldn't Die Hard's John McClane? In the new action romp Tears of the Sun, Bruce Willis undertakes a jungle rescue operation, and for his part it's a McClane adventure in camouflage, minus all the sass and most of the spectacle. As Navy SEAL squadron leader Lieutenant A.K. Waters, Willis summons the requisite sturdiness and a "surprising" reservoir of compassion, plus that weird, sanctimonious glower. His familiar palooka mug will put bums in the seats, but the movie's myriad other qualities are what raise it beyond its facile star-vehicle status.
For starters, director Antoine Fuqua whacks the bush with confident moodiness and, yes, soul. Screenwriters Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo have concocted a routine mission with routine twists, but Fuqua, fresh from saving Training Day from the liability called Ethan Hawke, flexes his considerable directorial gifts to imbue the material with dank atmosphere and the sharp stink of real danger. Add in Hawaiian locations that pass plausibly for Africa, plus a troupe of African supporting players (several of them real refugees), and the movie remains engaging, with a couple of sequences verging on stunning.
The main thrust is that Waters and his crack Sea-Air-Land team -- all of whom boast nifty nicknames such as "Zee," "Slo" and "Doc" (alas, no "Sneezy" or "Grumpy") -- have been dispatched by Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) to retrieve Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) from the Nigerian jungle. Kendricks, two nuns (Fionnula Flanagan, Cornelia Hayes O'Herlihy) and a priest (Pierrino Mascarino) have been nursing many wounded at a ramshackle Catholic mission, but as democracy collapses throughout the nation, they're considered sitting ducks for bloodthirsty rebels. It's up to Waters and his boys to play commando and get Kendricks out, pronto. Not her patients -- just her. Enter moral dilemma.
This fictional story opens with some factual information concerning violent upheavals among the region's 250 ethnic groups, but thereafter, substantive exposition's at a premium. We learn only that Waters and crew are noble, the beret-sporting rebels (under the awesomely malevolent Peter Mensah) are wicked, the refugees are vulnerable and safety in Cameroon is many arduous miles away. At first, Waters falsely promises salvation for Kendricks' people so he can march her to the chopper. Once uneasily airborne, however, the few aboard observe the carnage below, and the troubled Waters revises his mission. Deprived of another chopper by outrageously manipulative plotting -- which is later conveniently retracted -- he and his men attempt to shepherd Kendricks and her mobile patients to the border on foot, with villainous rebels closing in fast behind them.
Coming from the same studio that produced the ghastly Muslim shooting gallery Black Hawk Down (a.k.a. Blacks Shot Down) there's some déjà vu here, from the hateful, wanton slaughter to Skerritt pinch-hitting for Sam Shepard as the remote paternal commander. (One only wonders whether Shepard would've had the brains to step away from his aircraft carrier's deafening flight deck while talking on the walkie.) Fortunately, however, Fuqua and company are more interested in human struggles than in meaningless ballistic razzmatazz.
Although both the setup and the payoff come strictly by the numbers, in between Fuqua delivers those two affecting sequences. The first, set in the dark jungle, pits a crying baby among the refugees against the stalking rebels, a chilling exercise in shadowy dread. Later, when Waters and company discover villagers being tortured by yet more rebels, their effective neutralization of the situation cannot lessen the bloody horror of the cruelty. In both scenarios, we really come to appreciate the well-meaning roughneck SEALs (including Cole Hauser and Eamonn Walker) and their refugee charges (including Awaovieyi Agie, Akosua Busia and six of the "Lost Boys of Sudan," who in 1987 trekked across Ethiopia for political freedom). The beautiful faces immortalized by Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore are the project's triumph.
In the lead, Willis still insists on playing "rugged trooper" the same way fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen plays "workin' man" -- an obvious sham but occasionally charming. Here his friction with Bellucci (Italian star of Brotherhood of the Wolf, Irreversible and the new Matrix movies) is merely functional. She withholds her trust, he glares from beneath perfect head-wound makeup and around it goes. Maybe Willis' ex-wife G.I. Jane should've stepped in. She could've clobbered him for the pretension of intoning "for our sins" as if he's redeeming a nation.
Tears of the Sun could be another disposable title -- despite much sadness and heat, it seems primarily a pun for a pivotal "son" character who literally cries. Yet there's an undeniable atmosphere here, in the visuals but also in the incredible aural jungle of sound designer George Simpson and crew, and in the tribal/New Age soundtrack featuring the likes of Heitor Pereira, Lisa Gerrard, Andreas Vollenweider and Hans Zimmer. These elements make it possible to appreciate the film even if one doesn't enjoy watching people being blown to bits by heavy artillery.