"Tears of the Sun," a grim and mournful war movie about U.S. intervention in a fictional conflict in Nigeria, conjures atrocities out of thin air, asking us to respect the sacrifice of implausible U.S. troops and treating them with a reverence that signifies nothing.
With the nation preparing to enter a real war, why make one up?
While the fact-based "Black Hawk Down" is looking more and more vital these days, "Tears of the Sun" is too contrived and facile to be compelling. Working from a simplistic script by journeymen Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo, director Antoine Fuqua rushes through the premise: a brutal military coup has overthrown the elected president of Nigeria, plunging the country into state-sponsored ethnic and tribal violence.
The United States is staying out of the conflict, except for getting foreign nationals out of the war zone.
Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis), a Navy SEAL, is ordered to parachute down with his grizzled squad to rescue Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), who's been ministering to refugees and war wounded at a Catholic mission.
They're supposed to escort Kendricks, a priest and two nuns to safety, leaving everyone else behind. This doesn't sit well with the fiery, Italian-born Dr. Kendricks, who refuses to abandon her patients. Waters says he'll take the ones who are able to walk, but when they reach the rendezvous, he hoists Kendricks aboard the helicopter and leaves the refugees behind.
On the way out they fly over Kendricks' mission, which has been decimated by rebel soldiers; everyone who stayed behind is dead. Amid the ham-fisted plaintiveness of Hans Zimmer's score, Waters has a banal crisis of conscience and requests that the helicopters be turned around.
With a squad of eight, Waters tries to lead dozens of refugees on a grueling trek to the border with Cameroon, but rebel forces are everywhere, and they appear to be following the group.
Plenty of time but not much passion goes into this setup; Fuqua seems to be biding his time for the action sequences. When the SEALs witness a round of genocidal slaughter, the movie finally gets revved up a bit, with an icy portrait of American military efficiency: The squad dispatches a couple dozen rebels who are in the process of killing innocent villagers.
As the journey grinds on, not a single memorable character emerges.
It's been a while since Willis died hard, and it seems he's forgotten how. Waters has the stillness and rectitude that Willis used so effectively in "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," but subtlety doesn't come through in a war zone. You need a big performance for a cogent personality to emerge from the carnage; Willis understood this as the manic, fatalistic John McClane.
Bellucci, so much fun as the Vatican-employed hooker-assassin in "Brotherhood of the Wolf," is wasted as the saintly Dr. Kendricks. Essentially, she's there to provide eye candy, though Fuqua doesn't even seem to enjoy photographing her.
Waters' squad gets a smattering of dialogue, and Tom Skerritt barely registers as his commanding officer back on the aircraft carrier.
Fuqua summoned a hot-wired intensity in his previous film, "Training Day," but here he strives for detached realism, hoping the material will elevate itself to art.
But "Tears of the Sun" never comes close, appealing neither to the intellect nor the viscera.
"Tears of the Sun," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated R for strong war violence, some brutality and language. Running time: 118 min. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.