The interwoven wars, famines and poverty that continue to plague Africa in the 21st century get such shamefully little play in American pop media that a film like TEARS OF THE SUN, which attempts to grapple with the ongoing holocaust in the context of a mainstream Hollywood action story, deserves points just for making it to the screen. Ultimately, however, the strain of trying to create both rousing heroic spectacle and a realistic portrayal of genocide causes this well-meaning effort from director Antoine Fuqua (TRAINING DAY) to crack up somewhat under heavy fire, and neither mission is accomplished as satisfyingly as one might hope.
After setting up a fictional coup in Nigeria that sees the country's president and family wiped out, the film follows U.S. Navy SEAL rescue specialist Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) as he and his elite commando team are dropped into the Nigerian bush to extract prominent physician Lena Hendricks (Italy's Monica Bellucci from the upcoming MATRIX sequels), who is aiding refugees at a remote mission. Waters' straightforward-seeming assignment gets a lot messier and dramatically juicy when the good doctor refuses to leave the country unless she can bring along several dozen refugees who otherwise have little chance of survival as ethnic-cleansing rebels sweep into the area.
The well-drawn first act sets up an engaging battle of consciences between the good soldier Waters, whose clear orders leave little room for kindly gestures, and the idealistic Hendricks, who in her own way is as brave and hard-headed as the SEALs sent in to save her life. It comes as no surprise that Waters eventually relents and agrees to try to move the refugees across the border to Cameroon, risking the lives of his team members in a fantasy of noble American military intervention in the world's tragedy-filled hot spots. The tone grows more somber as the refugees' flight turns into a hellish tour of the kinds of atrocities that characterized recent wars in places such as Rwanda and the Congo.
On the upside, the former commercial helmer Fuqua is comfortably in his element with the film's tense action set pieces. TEARS OF THE SUN doesn't attempt to pound viewers into submission in the manner of Ridley Scott's Africa-set BLACK HAWK DOWN, but Fuqua generates plenty of suspense in a fine nighttime jungle sequence and bullets-whizzing depictions of battle that will have moviegoers ducking in their seats. Hans Zimmer's score provides a haunting emotional backdrop with its combination of African singers and orchestral music.
Willis keeps things firmly anchored in the kind of hard-bitten tough guy role he can play effortlessly by now. He has someone solid to bounce off in Bellucci, who somehow grows more mesmerizingly beautiful as she becomes progressively sweatier and more dirt-covered over the course of the film. Too bad her character has so little to do in the testosterone-filled latter sections one reason the film loses some of its narrative steam as it goes. The casting of a couple of the meanest-looking actors who ever lived as the fiendish rebel leaders pursuing the heroes has the unfortunate effect of making their characters seem a tad over the top, though the recent history of the region suggests there are folks every bit as vicious in the real world.