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. A couple of sequences border on stunning.
Waters and his crack team 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.
We learn 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 "clicks" 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 troubled Waters revises his mission -- he and his men will attempt to shepherd Kendricks and her mobile patients to the border on foot, with villainous rebels closing in fast behind them.
Between his strictly by-the-numbers setup and payoff, Fuqua delivers two forceful sequences. The first, set in the dark jungle, pits a crying baby among the refugees against the stalking rebels, a chilling exercise in 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 scenes, we 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 trekked across Ethiopia for political freedom in 1987). The beautiful faces immortalized by Fuqua and cinematographer Mauro Fiore are the project's triumph.
Willis still insists on playing rugged trooper the same way fellow New Jerseyite Bruce Springsteen plays workin' man -- an obvious but occasionally charming sham. 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' G.I. Jane ex-wife should've stepped in. She could have 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 movie, but there's an undeniable atmosphere here -- in the visuals, in the incredible aural jungle of sound designer George Simpson and crew, and in the tribal New Age soundtrack featuring 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.