[Screen It]

(2003) (Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci) (R)

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Action: A Navy SEAL commander disobeys orders so that he and his team can save villagers and a foreign aid worker from the brutal and deadly onslaught of guerilla fighters.
Political upheaval has swept through Nigeria and ethnic cleansing has become rampant. Accordingly, Captain Bill Rhodes (TOM SKERRITT) of the air craft carrier Harry Truman has assigned Navy SEAL commander Lieutenant A.K. Waters (BRUCE WILLIS) and his crew to find and extract foreign aid worker Dr. Lena Kendricks (MONICA BELLUCCI) along with two nuns and a priest from a jungle-based mission.

After parachuting into the jungle, Waters and his crew -- Jason "Flea" Mabry (CHAD SMITH), Danny "Doc" Kelley (PAUL FRANCIS), Kelly Lake (JOHNNY MESSNER), Michael "Slo" Slowenski (NICK CHINLUND), James "Red" Atkins (COLE HAUSER), Demetrius "Silk" Owens (CHARLES INGRAM) and Ellis "Zee" Pettigrew (EAMONN WALKER) - find Kendricks and the others, but none of them wish to leave their patients.

Concerned about approaching guerilla militia, Waters makes the decision to inform Kendricks that they can take any ambulatory ones with them and thus head off through the jungle with the likes of Patience (AKOSUA BUSIA), Arthur Azuka (SAMMI ROTIBI) and Gideon (JIMMY JEAN-LOUIS). Yet, when they get to the pickup point many miles away, Waters informs Kendricks that they're only taking her, much to her protest.

Heading back to the carrier, however, and upon seeing a massacre at the mission, Waters has a change of heart and returns to the stranded villagers. Since the choppers can only take a small number of them to safety, Waters and his team must escort Kendricks and the remaining villagers to the border of Cameroon.

As they make their way through the jungle and witness firsthand the atrocities of the rampant and unchecked ethnic cleansing, Waters and his team disobey orders and engage the enemy. They also soon realize that a growing number of guerilla forces are rapidly closing in on them. From that point on, they try to get everyone to the border as quickly and safely as possible, all while repeatedly tangling with the local militia.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
The Irish-born British writer and politician Edmund Burke has long been quoted as saying "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." It's certainly as valid a point today as it was back in the 18th century, and can be applied to all walks of life. That's particularly true for various military campaigns throughout history, such as the Allied effort to remove the likes of Hitler and Mussolini during WWII.

Director Antoine Fuqua uses Burke's quote to end his military movie, "Tears of the Sun," that explores that theme. With its "leave no one behind" mantra and plot that places American military men in harm's way on foreign soil, the movie is apt to remind viewers of recent films such as "When We Were Soldiers," "Three Kings" and "Black Hawk Down."

Rather than victims of Vietnam, Iraq or Somalia, however, Fuqua ("Training Day," "Bait") and screenwriters Alex Lasker ("Beyond Rangoon," "Firefox") and Patrick Cirillo ("The Surgeon," "Homer & Eddie") have set their tale of bravery and sacrifice in the jungles of Nigeria.

While the story - that follows a small team of Navy SEALs as they attempt to extract a foreign aid worker from the war zone but find themselves trying to escort various villagers to the border - might seem like a movie reenactment of an actual event, it's purely fictitious. Even so, its themes and historical context as related to real events in Africa will probably ring true to some viewers.

What might not work for them and others, however, are various elements and developments within the story as well as how it's told. For instance, we're never told - at least to any sort of credible, believable or satisfying level beyond the fact that she's an American through marriage - while a Navy team is sent in to rescue the doctor who's working deep inside the jungle. Had she been someone of importance (or related to someone thereof) or eventually revealed to have had something the Navy wanted or needed that would have been one thing, but the rescue mission doesn't seem realistic.

The same holds true regarding why she's not sent off with the rescue choppers that carry away some of their civilian party (if she's that important to risk lives, they would have sent her off first). Then there's the matter of why the aircraft carrier captain -- Tom Skerritt ("Texas Rangers," "The Other Sister") in a wasted role - makes all of his calls to the team while standing on the noisy flight deck (rather than inside) or finally orders another rescue team at the end when he refused to do so throughout the rest of the movie. Similarly, the SEAL team wants everyone to be quiet at one moment, and then lets the villagers loudly sing a song as they march through the jungle.

Of course, the catalyst and related complications are simply in place so that the rest of the film can consist of the initial Navy team running, hiding and fighting their way through the jungle, when not growing emotionally attached to or at least responsible for their charges.

Although not as relentlessly intense as "Black Hawk Down" during its perilous moments, this film shares a similar problem in that we barely know most of the characters beyond simple or one-note characteristics. As a result, we're not as emotionally vested in them or their plight as we should be, notwithstanding our instinctual visceral reaction to their progressively worsening situation.

That said, Fuqua does mange to elicit some related emotional response, although the degree of that will certainly depend on the viewer. Some will get caught up in the action and peril, but others may find the filmmaker's direction and composer Hans Zimmer's ("Gladiator," "Rain Man") Africa-themed score a bit (or a lot) melodramatic, manipulative and/or overwrought at times.

Things do occasionally get a bit heavy-handed and I found myself experiencing alternating levels of all four reactions as the story progressed. Yet, none is prevalent enough to make the effort a great or conversely trying experience.

Where the film simply doesn't work that well is in its "down times" between the battle or suspense scenes. A great deal of that can be attributed to that lack of emotional connection with the majority of the characters, many of whom are barely even identified by name.

The likes of Cole Hauser ("Hart's War," "White Oleander"), Eamonn Walker ("Unbreakable," HBO's "Oz"), Johnny Messner ("The Sweetest Thing," "Dancing in September"), Paul Francis ("Pearl Harbor," "Warlock 3"), Akosua Busia ("Mad City," "Rosewood"), Sammi Rotibi ("Extramarital") and others simply aren't given much with which to work. As a result, they simply take up space on the screen and are more caricatures than characters, no matter their or the filmmakers' intentions.

The rest stems from related clichés and conventions of the genre (that afflict other parts of the film where you know what's going to happen), as well as various moments that are supposed to bring a tear to our eye or a lump in our throat, but instead come off as too mawkish. Much of that deals with the quiet moments between the characters played by Bruce Willis ("Hart's War," "Bandits") and Monica Bellucci ("Malena," "The Brotherhood of the Wolf").

He's doing the stoic exterior/inner turmoil acting bit (and is actually fine doing so), while her character is all over the board, resulting in her turning out to be more of an annoying presence than a sympathetic being that we're supposed to care about. I'm not sure if the filmmakers were going for romantic or sexual tension between them, but their interaction just didn't work for me and instead made me long for a return to more action.

Those scenes are decently shot - in Hawaii -- by cinematographer Mauro Fiore ("Driven," "Get Carter") and while they're not of the "you are there" mode in "Saving Private Ryan," they're still rather effective in getting the action-based tension flowing. The various scenes of genocide are appropriately disturbing, but thankfully aren't overdone to the point of being sickening or overwhelming and aren't as intense or graphic as in other similar films. They do serve, however, as the palpable catalyst for the rest of what follows.

Filled with decent jungle battles and suspense scenes, the film is engaging at times. Yet, its various problems - some big, some small - prevent it from being as effective as it might have been. Not horrible, but certainly nothing great, "Tears of the Sun" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 3, 2003 / Posted March 7, 2003

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