Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Tears of the Sun 

I'd like to tell you a little bit about a movie I just watched, Tears of the Sun. While a 2005 review of a 2003 movie is admittedly a little stale, the movie had enough heart to demand I comment on it, even belatedly.

I would love to review movies before they come out. Unfortunately, I'm not generally invited to premieres and screenings -- my only invite was to a test screening of "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" back in the day. In the end, my reviews generally have to wait for the distribution lag to reach Israel, then for the film to leave theatres since we rarely make it to The Cinema, and then to show up on cable at which point I can record it and then watch it several months later when I have time. Which, in the case of Tears of the Sun was a mere two weeks ago -- the review itself had to wait in line behind a bunch of top ten lists and mocking screeds I had to write first.

Before we dive in, please note this SPOILER ALERT: for those who haven't yet seen the film and would like to watch it without knowing the details of exactly how the good guys save the day (mostly), or the outcome of other intrigues along the way, please turn off your monitor now -- I'll tell you when you can turn it back on.

Great, now that they're gone:

First, the plot summary in one breath: Bruce Willis leads a commando team into fictional unrest in Nigeria to rescue Doctor Monica Belluci from cruel, butchering rebels, but she refuses to go until he agrees to also save her patients, which he does, but only after much dithering and night walking in the jungle, eventually leading these refugees to the border, where they intervene on behalf of a village in the process of being slaughtered, and eventually are saved despite mass carnage by the timely arrival of a bunch of air-support bombs.

Is the movie as entertaining as I make it sound? Yes, and perhaps 15% more. This thing has got it all: thought-provoking violence, Monica Belluci's cleavage, authentic-looking jungle mud splattered everywhere. And Bruce Willis carries the film, fully utilizing that amazing emotional range of his, honed at the Mount Rushmore Thespian Academy. With all this going for it, I found Tears of the Sun to be easily worth the price of admission -- especially since blank video cassettes were on sale last month.

Sure, there are a few glaring, cosmetic problems. Actually the main problem, literally, is glaring cosmetics. When Bruce Willis saves "Doctor" Belluci, he also has to save her makeup artist, stylist and cleavage consultant, all of whom appear to make the full trek through the jungle with her. The refugees successfully plod through the dark jungle, even on a moonless night, thanks only to the light reflected from the good Doctor's lip gloss. The only reason they come so close to being caught is that the whole crowd has to stop periodically to refresh the light spritz of faux sweat misting her lovely forehead, and ensure that her blouse is properly unbuttoned.

However, the Hollywood cliches serve primarily as a commercial skin, layered over the serious issue troubling the movie's director, Antoine Fuqua. His obsession with the slaughters that have ravaged Africa drives the film and its characters. When Bruce Willis makes his key transformative decision, to abandon his literal orders and risk everything to save whatever he and his men can, we receive little dramatic justification. Bruce Willis is not so much a character in the film, as a stand-in for the director's conscience -- and ours. While that is a weak point in the film's story-telling, it is the source of whatever energy the film does have. In translating to film his anguish over American inaction in Africa, Fuqua forces us to look at the uneasy feelings we'd rather forget, the sense we should have done something.

Sure, the recipe he shows us for what could have been done is positively Bruckheimer-esque. Watching Willis in action, it's easy to believe that even the world's toughest problems could be solved if we would just send in a team of US commandos with enough ammo. But Fuquaa does toss in small hints of what else is needed: the integrity of Willis and his men, the courage to not look away, and the hope democracy can bring a better day. In the end, his rather muddled fantasy of how things should have been better fails to convince, because he doesn't fully transmit his faith and understanding in his proposals. For instance, the original, good Nigerian dictator apparently was about to bring democratic change to his people, except the rebels murdered him before he got around to it. We learn this from his only surviving son, whom we find hidden amongst the refugees, zealously guarded from rebel wrath. In the end, the son is saved and almost worshipped by the mass of survivors as the one true hope of restoring their lost tribal dictatorship. Fuqua seems blind to the irony. He can't bring himself to choose between the democracy his brain knows is needed, and the tribal monarchy his heart still admires despite the misery it engenders.

All this notwithstanding, as Hollywood films go, it's a not a bad start. Ok, the rest of you can turn your monitors back on now.
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