NOW PLAYING: Tears of the Sun

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2003

The term "ethnic cleansing" is so antiseptic, so empty, it reminds me of a Stanley Kubrick set piece. The term is chilling, but never has its modern usage been brought so forcefully home to me than in Antoine Fuqua's follow up to Training Day, Tears of the Sun.

Ethnic cleansing has been used to describe several sets of social disasters in recent decades. The crises in Bosnia and Rwanda certainly fit the bill. The term generally applies to the massacre of one group, for religious or political reasons, by another in a mad rush to cement their oh-so tenuous position of power. Think the murder of the Jews in Europe by the Nazis, though on somewhat smaller scales. Tears depicts civil unrest in Nigeria that results in unspeakable atrocities.

For those of you who thought you were going to see another typical Bruce Willis action flick, the answer is: you are and you aren't. Yes, Tears has lots and lots of action. Yes, Bruce Willis gets the hell kicked out of him by the end of the movie. I've never seen an actor come through a movie as bruised and battered as Bruce seems to do in every film he's in, and this is no exception. The difference is, after the first action scene, you aren't going to want to see any more, and that's what separates this from the usual, mindless shoot-em-up.

Bruce Willis is in fine form as the commander of an elite force of rescue rangers. (Their ranks and branch of service would probably be immediately apparent to a military buff, but the movie doesn't make pains to point it out, and I didn't notice.) Their jobs is get Americans out of hot spots and they seem to be very good at it. Their latest mission, after rescuing the Ambassador to Nigeria and his family, is to turn around and go right back into the country, which has fallen into chaos after a recent coup. An American doctor has been helping at a mission in the jungle, but soldiers are brutally killing anyone in their path, and it is deemed that the doctor must leave, whether she wants to or not. The problem is, of course, she refuses to leave her charges, thirty Nigerian men and women who will most certainly be targets of the marauders. After a whole lotta back and forth, it is eventually decided that Bruce and his team are going to escort the refugees to the border of Cameroon, where they will be safe. It is at this point that the movie turns; becomes more.

The violence in this film is horrifying, as all violence should be, I suppose. Too often, though, we find ourselves thrilled by it, which is why those movies make all the money. What's hard to get my head around is the level of cruelty exhibited by the soldiers to the innocent civilians of their own country. They brutally murdered, on-screen anyway, dozens of people with machetes, guns, and gasoline. They killed them for sport, and seemed to take such pleasure in it. This is all bad, but I've seen serial killer movies, I've seen Freddy Krueger slice people up and not batted an eye. The difference is that all of this is real. I don't mean this story - I admit I'm not up on current events enough to know if this unrest in Nigeria really happened or not. But all over Africa, this kind of thing occurred. In the millions. Millions of people were hacked to death because they belonged to a different tribe, or worshiped a different god. The level of horror that those people endured, are still enduring, is staggering.

On the one hand, I guess we can talk about Tears of the Sun as just another war movie. It's well done, fairly predictable, and lives up to the preview, which is more than you can say about some. But, I'm not going to put it in the pantheon of excellent war movies like Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now; films that are true works of art. Tears is simply a good movie, but where it should triumph is in raising awareness of the situation in Africa. We are rattling our sabers at Iraq, and will probably go to war to oust a legitimate madman. However, the honor of that act suddenly seems hollow and tarnished when you imagine the millions suffering the most brutal kind of torture and murder who will not receive our help because they have nothing political to offer us. Grade: B+

Tears of the Sun is rated R for intense violence and language. If the kids want to go, I would strongly suggest going with them, and talking about it afterward.

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