Action, staged with technological bombast, has become the oversize engine of the global movie marketplace. Against the endless rain of heavy-metal thrills, it’s not unusual to see a combat picture that imitates the look and sound — the ominous sensuality — of famous modern war films without a trace of their complexity or moral power. In Tears of the Sun, a military-rescue thriller set in the jungles of Nigeria (it was actually shot in Hawaii), Bruce Willis, as Navy SEAL lieutenant A.K. Waters, boasts a shaved head, an electronic earpiece, and an air of detached, mock-genial efficiency that combine to make him look a bit like GloboCop. The country has undergone a coup, and Waters is assigned to extract an American volunteer from the crisis zone.
Willis, our frat-house Bogart, is reluctant to get more involved than he has to. But when Lena (Monica Bellucci), the Doctors Without Borders physician he’s supposed to be protecting, refuses to exit the jungle without her patients, he agrees to lead the ragtag group of African refugees in an escape from the Marxist rebels who’d gladly machete them on sight. Before long, he’s turning misty and noble, putting his enemy-lacing sharpshooter skills to the service of the higher good, even if it means breaking orders.
The director, Antoine Fuqua, coming off ”Training Day,” knows how to stage a skirmish in the foliage so that each leaf glistens with waxy moonlit peril. Fuqua shoots scenes through the radiation-green night-goggle light that seems to be showing up more and more on cable news these days, and he makes gripping use of silence, turning the looming silhouette of an enemy officer into a powerful abstraction of terror. When the gunfire erupts, the dense crackle of bullets surrounds the audience, and you’re reminded of the way that sophisticated war artists like Oliver Stone and Francis Ford Coppola have used technology as a form of volatile expression.
It’s only a reminder, though. Fuqua has loads of technique, and he has obviously studied the great Vietnam films, notably ”Platoon,” which he mimics in his tangled forest mayhem and elegantly unsettling horizontal compositions. At the same time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Fuqua lumped ”First Blood” and its sequel, ”Rambo,” right up there with the Vietnam classics. In ”Tears of the Sun,” there’s not much distinction between terror and kinesis — between the hell of war and the kick of war. Each time somebody pulls out a gun, it’s freighted with somber significance, and the film pays lip service to the issue of ethnic cleansing by showing us the Nigerian rebels as they maim and kill any civilian who happens to be Christian. Yet it does so in a reductive, videogame way: Spot the cleansers, kill the cleansers — they’re the bad guys! In essence, this is ”Black Hawk Down” with tidier circuitry, a broad, shallow fantasy of American intervention and omnipotence. Left wing? Right wing? Center? Who cares, as long as Bruce Willis is saving the world.
Willis, with his handsome gray stubble, may be playing the grizzled Rambo of American peacekeeping, but he’s far too good an actor to reduce himself to facile heroics. He does a taut, nearly minimalist rendition of courage under fire, and while he never lets Waters show fear (which might have made the character more interesting), it’s his constant awareness of danger that ripples through every scene. There’s supposed to be a submerged erotic tension between Willis and Bellucci, but the Italian actress, so powerful in the new ”Irréversible,” is reduced to just two dimensions here: saintly and testy. Virtually no one in the film registers as a full presence except for Willis and Sammi Rotibi, the young actor who plays the hidden son of the slain Nigerian president with a stare of vulnerable, accusatory fire.
Waters, leading his charges to the Cameroon border, is, at first, just doing what it takes to complete his assignment. His transformation, however, occurs relatively early on, when a chopper flies him over the massacre of innocents he has left behind. ”Let’s turn it around!” he bellows, in a moment that probably should have arrived about 45 minutes further into the movie. America, embodied by Willis, enters a Third World war zone strictly for its own interests and is moved, inevitably, to better the lives of the natives. Sound familiar? It’s the rhetoric of every U.S. military intervention of the last 15 years smushed into one kick-ass showdown in the woods. It may also be Fuqua’s comment on our failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda. ”For our sins!” says Willis, just before the big battle. Yet the righteousness of ”Tears of the Sun” would be more effective if the film weren’t caught between realism and escapism, faux topicality and action dream. This may not be the best moment to make war look easier than it is.