Picture "Hotel Rwanda" as an action film rather than a drama and you've got a pretty good handle on "Tears of the Sun." This morality-driven action yarn stars Bruce Willis as the leader of a group of U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.s who are assigned to "extract a critical personality a-sap" from a remote mission in Nigeria after a military coup triggered nationwide mass murders. The impersonal military language is matched by the cue-ball bald Lt. A.K. Waters' (Willis) attitude towards his job. When he saves "the package" from being shot and she hugs him, he looks at her dumbfounded and says, "It's just a mission."
From a couch potato's viewpoint, it's a pretty engaging mission, though there aren't quite as many stumbling blocks as there usually are in an action film. The plot is pretty straightforward, and nothing we haven't seen before. A force of bad men pursue the good guys through the jungle as the good guys try to make it across the border to safety. Or, if you look at it another way, a crusty, hard-hearted man gets thrown together with a missionary woman he's trying to get out of Africa, but along the way they end up fighting the enemy. Only Bruce Willis is no Humphrey Bogart and Monica Belluci Cole Hauser is not Katharine Hepburn, nor are they given the chance to really develop their characters the way that Bogie and Kate could in "The African Queen." But their characters develop just enough to keep them from being cardboard, and to keep this film from being just another action adventure.
The film's postscript comes from Edmund Burke, who cautions, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Despite having rules of engagement that order him and his men to "defend yourself if fired upon, otherwise do not engage," Lt. Waters and his men slowly become witness to the savagery that prompts them to finally disobey orders and construct a new mission. Admittedly, they're pushed into it by the feisty Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks, but Waters comes around. So do most of his men, who at one point rally to help a village. His "magnificent seven" are played by Cole Hauser, Eamonn Walker, Johnny Messner, Nick Chinlund, Charles Ingram, Paul Francis, and Chad Smith. But because only one of them gets a side story, with an interest in helping one of the African women closest to the doctor, we don't get to see this bunch as individuals—only as a collective strike force. And that's the only thing that keeps this film from being better than it is. The familiar plot and emphasis on action subdues what could have been a much more powerful human element.
On the other hand, "Tears of the Sun is the perfect film for people who like some aspects of action films but wish they had more substance. This one has a moral backbone that goes beyond the simplicity of good vs. evil or revenge motifs. It's about survival, and about doing the right thing no matter what the cost . . . or the orders. And there are just enough twists and obstacles in the plot to make the journey worth taking. It's easy to get caught up in their cause, and though we can see some of the challenges coming a "click" away, that doesn't diminish the level of tension. "Tears of the Sun" is a surprisingly solid film.
Video: Ahh, Blu-ray. What a glorious picture this is, with video so sharp that you can see hairs and facial blemishes and the tiniest beads of sweat. I wasn't impressed with the first round of Sony Blu-ray titles, but they've really turned things around in a hurry. "Tears of the Sun" has many scenes that are dimly lit or filmed in haze, but no matter. There's still a fantastic amount of detail, and the black levels are very good. So is the level of color saturation, for that matter, though much of the film is green and khaki. This is one of my favorite Blu-ray video presentations so far. The aspect ratio is 2.40:1 and the resolution, as with other Blu-ray releases, is 1920x1080p full resolution.
Audio: The audio is also excellent, with English PCM 5.1 uncompressed sound. You can hear the choppers track over your speaker system as they pass from front to back or side to side, and the bullets and tracer ricochets have plenty of treble zing to them.
Extras: Some of the Blu-ray titles have been a disappointment as far as the bonus features are concerned. This one thankfully includes a few extras. There are eight deleted scenes that are presented in rough form and without commentary, along with a "factoid track" that takes pop-ups to a new level. I'm not sure I like the new level. The pop-ups are jazzy, to be sure, with simulated strips of tan, blue, green, and red cloth popping up on the bottom of the screen. Because of the aspect ratio and the bars at the bottom, not much of the picture is lost. But what can get a bit unnerving is the way that these pop-ups disappear. Instead of a comfortable fade-in and fade-out, this band slides onto the screen and then quickly slides off the screen. It's a fun and well-designed feature, but it might be a bit too jumpy for some folks—myself included.
The other features are a full-length director's commentary and roughly 16 minutes of the "writers' observations." Both are worth a listen, especially in concert with the pop-up track. Director Antoine Fuqua tells how they actually got permission to shoot on the decks of the USS Harry S. Truman, and even had access to the choppers and jets. Why did the Navy grant permission? Maybe because of the movie's message. Some of the jumps we see were even filmed at 14,000 feet using real S.E.A.L.s. Set in Nigeria but filmed in Hawaii, "Tears of the Sun" hooked Fuqua because he saw some of the real-life footage inserted at the beginning of the film. But what convinced him he had to make the movie was witnessing a boy his son's age thrown against a wall and having his arm twisted off and kicked and beaten. That's why this action film has a humanist message. Originally, we learn, the script had more complexity involving politics, people, and oil, but much of that had to go. The writers' confirm some of what was in the early draft. Overall, both tracks are average to above-average.
Bottom Line: Directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day," "The Replacement Killers,") "Tears of the Sun" is an entertaining action film bolstered by a moral backbone. It's the perfect film for people who wish that action films had more substance. This one goes beyond the simplicity of good vs. evil or revenge motifs. It's about survival, and about doing the right thing no matter what the cost . . . or the orders. The characters don't develop as much as they could, and the human element doesn't hit you with the weight of "Hotel Rwanda," but "Tears of the Sun" is still an engaging activist film about breaking the rules of engagement. Call it an action film with a conscience.