Tears of the Sun is patriotic mush.

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March 7 2003 9:57 AM

Shafted in Africa

Bruce Willis wants out of Nigeria in Tears of the Sun.

Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci in Tears of the Sun
Willis and Bellucci: baldly manipulative

Bruce Willis is a baldy in his new war film, Tears of the Sun (Columbia), and the camera revolves around his dome like a helicopter around Mount Rushmore. As veteran Navy SEAL Lt. A.K. Waters, he's supposed to be an emblem of modern war, a stoic with the profile of an eagle who's battered past caring and follows orders without question. But Willis still has a trace of his characteristic '80s-TV-idol smirk. It's not really right for the role, but it probably helps the movie seem less like a crock when he suddenly starts to, gulp, care—when he cocks his head quizzically and stares at the people he had previously regarded as "packages," like a Star Trek android feeling his first twinge of empathy. At times, you could actually mistake Tears of the Sun for a blunt modern parable instead of an opportunistic mixture of up-to-the-minute atrocities and old-fashioned corn.

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The movie, directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day [2001]), begins off the coast of Africa, where Waters is ordered to lead his elite squadron into the Nigerian countryside after a fictional—but not entirely far-fetched—coup by a military dictator and a protracted spasm of "ethnic cleansing." His task is to retrieve a Doctors Without Borders physician, Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), from a Catholic mission in a remote village—in all likelihood soon to be overrun by guerrilla troops with a mandate to terminate with extreme prejudice. But the Italian-born doctor, mulish do-gooder that she is, won't leave without the villagers: She wants Waters to get them to the Cameroon border, which is against the lieutenant's orders. And this lieutenant is an orders machine.

If Waters says, "Sure, these people would die otherwise, let's get some more choppers," and the Navy says, "Hey, why not?" then there's no movie. So, Waters doesn't and the Navy doesn't—and then it becomes a battle of wills between the tempestuous Italian and the grimly efficient warrior. But it's not much of a contest, really, at least in a Sony/Columbia entertainment. Those ragtag Nigerians, they're so sweet and helpless … and they'll all die if left in the jungle … and those guerrillas are such animals … and Monica Bellucci … que bella donna

Here's the money scene: The Navy SEALs and the 50 or so Nigerians pass by a village where a squadron of guerrillas is in the process of raping, torturing, and murdering men, women, and children. One of Waters' men reports they have a "ringside seat to an ethnic cleansing." The lieutenant has orders not to engage the enemy. But can they walk away from these atrocities—and these blood-freezing cries? Down the embankment, a guerrilla pours gasoline over a man on his knees, then takes a lighter out of his pocket and holds it aloft. Waters turns to his team's ace sniper, who's already in position. "Zippo first," says Bruce, and the sniper says, "Yeah"—and Zippo, after an agonizing couple of beats, takes three in the chest. The SEALs are too late to save most of the villagers, but when one American soldier pulls a guerrilla off a horribly mutilated woman with a dead baby, he forces the killer to regard his handiwork—then he guts him.

My own gut reaction—and I bet yours, too—is easily stated: Onward Christian soldiers! Cleanse those ethnic cleansers! I wonder if "Zippo first" will enter the lexicon along with Die Hard's "Yippie-ki-yay, motherf---er." When Waters discovers that among his refugees is the future leader of a democratic Nigeria, and that he's being pursued by a relentless platoon commanded by icy Col. Idriss Sadique (Malick Bowens) and his superior, a grinning human jackal, he calls together his men and gives them a chance to sound off: He wants to know what they think of his unprecedented show of humanitarian disobedience. Then he makes an amazing declaration. He says he's saving the villagers "for all the years we've been told to stand down or stand by ... for our sins."

There's something about Tears of the Sun that rips me right down the middle. On one hand, it's an inspiring story of American valor and self-sacrifice. On the other, it seems so far removed from the real world—from any action by any soldier at any recent time—that it amounts to a sort of opium dream of heroism, a collective fantasy to make us feel better about ourselves on the eve of a controversial military action. This is how we'd like Americans to be seen by the rest of the world, as both great soldiers and great moral individualists—policing the planet and rescuing helpless civilians from barbarous regimes.

Has any American platoon ever moved in to stop an ethnic cleansing? I don't know. But even U.N. troops charged with protecting civilians have a spotty record in Africa and the Balkans when it comes to engaging an exterminating enemy. This vision of a sensitive, humanistic, morally engaged (and enraged) American military is extremely appealing. But is it grounded in anything other than Hollywood opportunism and a national ego that seems, given the record, hugely inflated? That's not a rhetorical question: I'd really like to believe that Tears of the Sun is more than self-deluding mush. As it stands, it doesn't approach the serious political context, the acid ironies, the dizzying lack of moral gravity that David O. Russell brought to Three Kings (1999), another brutal war movie about soldiers moved to defy their superiors and do the right thing.

Fuqua, a music-video hotshot, doesn't overmilk the primitive scenario by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo. There are no fussy effects in the battle scenes, just good, scary passages of quiet before the storm, then fast and fluid action. The director doesn't stint on the gore, but he doesn't wallow in it, either; the movie is horrifying without being sadistic. (It's too bad that Fuqua resorts to a war-movie cliché: the "Adagio for Strings" type music that begins a few seconds before people we care about get shot.)

But the opening, which features actual footage of a civilian being shot many times by a Nigerian army officer at close range in the course of a melee, is creepily exploitive, even obscene: You don't use a real-life atrocity as a prelude to a Hollywood fantasy of macho humanism co-starring this year's international sex goddess. Don't misunderstand—Monica Bellucci is a brave and surprisingly down-to-earth actress. But when the Navy shows Waters and his squad her picture—she has big, dark eyes and huge, pillowy, cover-girl lips—and they don't explode in whoops, you know you're in a never-never land, where warriors are chivalrous and African peasants give thanks in song to their Great American Saviors. This seems about as likely to me as rubbing Bruce Willis' bald head and getting three wishes.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.