"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do
There is a multitude of reasons that studios and filmmakers create movies. Over time, these reasons have changed. Today, the obvious side of Hollywood is the production of grand, mindless summer flicks that will rake in hundreds of millions of dollars and hopefully go on to create a lucrative franchise. Then there's the niche market that caters to a smaller population with its not-so-mainstream tastes. But apart from these are the films that are made for a reason. There's a purpose in the film far away from making money. The filmmaker has a passion for a topic, and he or she is compelled to use this medium to inform people of that subject. Such films can be as masterful and moving as Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, a little more delicate like Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia, or a touch more provocative like Spike Lee's Malcolm X.
Unfortunately, the world we live in is an ugly place. If you scratch the surface, you will see a planet riddled with malice and evil. Beyond the everyday crimes we witness on the evening news, there are gross abominations that don't get broadcast into our homes. Even with the Internet, people are still largely uninformed about the hateful things that man is capable of doing. In the United States, we cannot fathom the things that are being done around the world, as we have been fortunate never to experience such hatred here. Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Bait, The Replacement Killers) was presented with an early draft of Tears of the Sun. In it, he saw a way to enlighten a mainstream audience to the horrors of ethnic cleansing that continue today in Africa. The news has told us of the atrocities committed against the Jews, against the Kurds, and against the Bosnian Serbs, but it has failed to realize those same horrors that have murdered millions all throughout Africa.
It is Fuqua's passion to make sure you know that Africa is a continent so riddled with hate that scores are slaughtered for mere political gain. Ethnic cleansing continues today.
Facts of the Case
Nigeria is once again in the midst of a bloody civil war, with factions mercilessly killing anyone not on their side. Women and children are killed without a second thought in order to eliminate any and all opposition. Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci, The Matrix Reloaded, Brotherhood of the Wolf), an American by marriage, runs a small Catholic mission in the remote jungle. Being an American and a Catholic, Dr. Kendricks and her mission are obvious targets for the rebel insurgents, who are celebrating their success in assassinating the entire royal family. Navy SEAL Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis, Die Hard, The Sixth Sense, Hudson Hawk) has just returned with his team from rescuing the American Embassy staff in Nigeria. Given a few hours of down time, his team is sent back in to retrieve the doctor.
Waters and his team quickly arrive at the mission and inform the doctor that she is to evacuate immediately. She adamantly refuses to leave behind the seventy people in her care, putting Waters in a precarious position. After contacting Captain Rhodes (Tom Skerritt, Contact, Alien, The Dead Zone) on the U.S.S. Harry S. Truman, Waters agrees to the doctor's demand, but he says that only those who can move on their own can come along.
The SEAL team, the doctor, and a couple dozen refugees begin their twelve-click hike through the jungle to the evacuation site. Though the trip is slow and filled with dangerous encounters, the group makes it to the site without any major complications. Once there, Waters reveals that he never had any intention of taking the refugees as well. He lied to the doctor to get her to acquiesce to the trip. It was Waters' mission to get the doctor out, no more, no less. Carrying Dr. Kendricks into the helicopter, the SEALs head home.
En route to the aircraft carrier, the evac choppers fly over the doctor's mission and find it overrun by rebels. All the buildings have been destroyed and burned, and everyone who was left behind was brutally murdered. Seeing this, Waters orders the choppers to return to pick up the refugees they left behind. Waters has never before disobeyed an order and become personally involved in a mission, but the horrors he is witnessing, perpetrated upon completely innocent victims, compel him to take action. The choppers arrive but only a dozen refugees can be taken. Thus, rationalizing he's still fulfilling his mission, Waters and his team guide Dr. Kendricks and the remaining refugees to the alternate evac site. Unfortunately, Captain Rhodes cannot send any more choppers for the pickup as fighting has intensified and the airspace isn't safe for any flights. It is now up to Waters to take everyone on a longer quest to the border of neighboring Cameroon.
As if the mission were not already difficult enough, a large team of rebels is hunting the group. As they are doggedly tracked, Waters cannot figure out what is so special about the doctor that would motivate the rebels to hunt them so single-mindedly. What is so extraordinary about Dr. Kendricks and her refugees? Why are they being hunted? Can Waters get everyone to Cameroon? What other horrors will they face in the jungles of Nigeria?
Tears of the Sun opened to lackluster reviews and a weak box office. Why didn't this movie do better? Was it the message that Fuqua was trying to send that scared people away? No, it's the simple fact that it isn't a captivating movie. One cannot belittle Fuqua's goal with this film, yet the vehicle itself doesn't fully allow the message to be received clearly by the audience. From the bonus materials, you learn that Fuqua's entire purpose in this film was to highlight the slaughter that occurs with little notice in Africa. That is a noble and enlightened purpose; however, the writers originally created Tears as an entertainment vehicle. Through numerous rewrites and drafts, Fuqua, Bruce Willis, and the writers crafted the movie as it is today: a blend of message and entertainment. That's the crux of the problem. A film with a purpose should not necessarily entertain its audience. Those who view such a film should encounter a thought-provoking film that makes them reconsider what they know, helps them absorb the information presented to them, and hopefully emboldens them to make some contribution towards the cause. But when you have to worry about entertaining the masses—because the studio wants to make some money—your message is often lost.
I watched Tears of the Sun and did not realize the moral of the story. I obviously witnessed the savagery depicted, but it didn't dawn on me that I was supposed to be educated with the film. When I see Bruce Willis leading a band of Navy SEALs on a mission, I believe I'm about to see an action movie. That morsel of an idea was all the further bolstered by a very aggressive trailer and the review quote from Tony Toscano, "Talking Pictures," on the front of the package: "The best Bruce Willis action film since Die Hard." So, Mr. Fuqua, while you certainly had the most noble of intentions, and I cast no ill will your way for such an endeavor, the end product is not what you envisioned or believed you created. This film is not a film with a purpose; it is simply yet another entertainment film with a few shocking and disturbing scenes.
Now that we know what this film truly is, why doesn't it work? There are many military thrillers to be found, and audiences have very high expectations for this genre. In the shadow of Black Hawk Down, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and a bevy of others, Tears fails to bring anything fresh or new to the experience. It's all pretty familiar by now. Perhaps while we are supposed to be impressed by the black ops nature of the mission, we're not; for we are well aware of our military's bravery, not only in movies but also in the real life conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps while we are supposed to be sickened by the vile acts of barbarism being displayed, we're not; for we are well aware that man is a sadistic creature that knows no bounds and is capable of many horrors. In that we are now a little more aware of the crimes taking place in Africa, the movie succeeds. In that we've watched a military extraction film, we are but mildly entertained.
The heart of the matter is that the fault has to rest solidly on Antoine Fuqua. Tears failed to garner an audience because it doesn't succeed in either function, and we are only slightly more enlightened and only mildly entertained. Fuqua tried to wring too much from the script, turning it into something it was not. Though he is certainly a talented man with a very strong vision and excellent style, his passion is not felt in the end product. Fortunately, he was able to coax admirable performances from everyone in the film. I've always had a soft spot for Bruce, and I'm appreciative that he branched out beyond action. In this film, he carries on his fine tradition of solid performances as a leading man in a dramatic role. His character, though a stolid military man, embodies a wide range of emotions; there's a sly balance of subtlety, aggression, dedication, loyalty, and morality all in one character. Add to that the fiery and passionate Dr. Kendricks, portrayed smartly with minimal dialogue by Monica Bellucci, a well-rounded group of character actors in the roles of the hardened Navy SEALs, and an impressive cast of supporting Afrikaans, and Tears is a wonderfully acted film.
While we could digress into a discussion of some of the other weaknesses of the film (military logistical gaps, plot contrivances, scenes that are dragged out too long, et cetera), I'll take a final moment to point out just a few more positive points of the film. First, I'm a sucker for great cinematography. Moreover, you give me a pretty locale and film it smartly, and I'm yours. This film fits that bill quite well. With Oahu sitting in for Nigeria, Tears is a beautifully set film. Rugged mountains mix with lush forests to give you the sense of peril necessary to carry the film. Next, I applaud the efforts that were put into giving the film a (mostly) realistic feel. Our SEALs aren't supermen, the rebels aren't mindless goons, and all the characters genuinely react to the atrocities they bear witness to. Whether you appreciate that right away or it catches up to you later, you will welcome the extra steps Fuqua went through to add a human touch to the characters.
Barely three months after its theatrical release, Tears makes its way to DVD shelves all across the nation. What should one expect from yet another box office dud? Let's take a peak at the transfers and see if there is more goodwill to be spread. The anamorphic video transfer is surprisingly disappointing for such a recent film. I found the video to be widely inconsistent: one moment, the print is sparkling; the next, it's murky. Overall, I felt the picture was just too dark; even the day scenes didn't feel bright enough. In certain scenes, grain would practically explode into a noticeable haze. It wouldn't last long or be consistent, but such grainy scenes are sprinkled throughout the presentation. Colors are accurate, though not as vibrant as they should be; details are solid; blacks are well presented for the night scenes; and, aside from the grain, I did not notice any other errors. For the audio, you get a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that is also disappointing. I often found it hard to understand the dialogue, and many of the surround sounds felt forced (we're in a jungle so we must need to hear lots of animal noises). Fortunately, there is no additional distortion or hiss, the surrounds are used (too) well, and the bass kicks in nicely when needed.
As is the case with many films that don't do so well in the receipts department, the studio tries to recoup some money by loading the disc up with extras. Tears isn't overstuffed with features, but there is plenty for you to sort through.
• Audio Commentary with Director Antoine Fuqua: I was less than
impressed with this track and would say this is one of the worst I've heard in
some time. After listening to it, I found myself disliking the film far more
than after my initial viewing. The problem here is that, as Fuqua is so
passionate about emphasizing the purpose of his film, he practically
preaches his point for two hours. Rarely is there any digression off that topic
into the realm of making the film and other production-related nuggets. If I
want to be lectured, I don't turn to my DVD collection.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are many weaknesses in the film that haven't been addressed. Many have countered that Willis' depiction of a SEAL is inaccurate and that someone in his position would never have done what was portrayed. Others have commented on how naïve and disingenuous Bellucci's Dr. Kendricks is shown as, with her incessant whining and actions that endanger the entire group. Still others find the whole story muddled because of a heavy-handed approach to the purpose of the film.
Digging into the history of Tears of the Sun, you'll discover that the original script once had its sights on becoming Die Hard 4. Hence, with that piece of knowledge, you can understand that a film with that primary purpose would be hard pressed to be adapted into a film with the purpose of shedding light on the darkest acts hidden within Africa. It's a valiant effort, but not quite on target.
For the most part, when I go to see a film in the theater, odds are good that I am there to be entertained. I've had numerous discussions with some friends that my intent in seeing a movie is to have fun. However, like all of us here, that is not always my sole objective. Over time, I've seen a few purpose films, and I have been deeply moved by many of them. In watching Tears this week, I truly can say that I was not moved. This is not a purpose movie, in my opinion, and if that was its intent, it clearly failed.
I applaud Fuqua's intention to raise our awareness of the ethnic cleansing going on around Africa today. Unfortunately, he did not pick the best vehicle to smartly do the job. In and of itself, Tears is merely a run-of-the-mill film with little new to offer. There's some solid acting and realistic characters working to do a morally right thing, yet we've seen that before. There's an energetic climactic battle sequence, yet it stretches credibility. As much as I'd like to foster Fuqua's purpose, I don't have the heart do so; thus, I cannot recommend Tears of the Sun. It's an average film that will, at best, pass the time. Picking it up for rental certainly isn't the worst decision you can make, but I recommend keeping your expectations in check.
Antoine Fuqua is found not guilty in his attempt to create a film with a purpose. His efforts to showcase the horrors in Africa are appreciated.
Tears of the Sun is found guilty for not fulfilling Fuqua's ambitious purpose and is hereby sentenced to one month probation.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Antoine Fuqua
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