"Tears of the Sun" offers one of the greatest never-happened-but-should-have moments in movie history. An African death squad is in the process of destroying a village for the crime of belonging to the wrong tribe. They are shooting the men, raping and mutilating the women and getting rid of the kids any way that's convenient. They're laughing, they're drunk, they're having the time of their lives. But then they run into one very teed-off U.S. Navy SEAL team.
The pleasure of that moment is profound if subversive: Even you highly evolved, post-national pacifists out there will probably enjoy the spectacle of highly trained American commandos with suppressed weapons moving through the glades and lanes with the grace and purpose of athletes and -- pffft! pffft! pffft! -- serving up justice in 9mm portions, hot and steamy.
But the movie has other pleasures, less subversive but just as profound. One of them is the glee it takes in expertise, special operations variety, as it chronicles this tough, laconic crew's odyssey across a fictitious Nigerian civil war. The film is a strictly no-bull proposition: Bruce Willis, who never met a quip he didn't like, has been enjoined to keep his yap shut and play his team leader's role with wary grace and almost pure silence. I don't think he cracks wise even once. He just looks, as soldiers do and are, really tired most of the time. He doesn't even kiss the girl, and since the girl is Monica Bellucci, that gives you some idea of his discipline!
The technical adviser behind "Tears of the Sun" is Harry Humphries, who spent 16 years as a SEAL, including time in Vietnam. He would seem to know what he is talking about. He has given the movie a quiet, confident, almost documentary feel, as well as getting so many of the little things right -- the proper guns, for example, and the SEAL penchant, unique in the service, for going into battle with scarves wrapped tightly around the head. There's no speechifying, and when the guys go to the radio, the militarese they spout has the terse poetics of the actual stuff. (Humphries was also the military adviser on "Black Hawk Down," where he achieved a similar sense of verisimilitude.)
The story might be called classic or trite, take your choice. It has been used as recently as 1999's "Three Kings," set during the Gulf War, and at least as far back as "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), which I suppose in turn tracks to "The Seven Samurai" (1954). All of these plots turn on the honor of professional soldiers of the highest alpha-classification when they are faced with something that is not in their own best interest but clearly moral in meaning. Do they stay and fight, or do they run? Well, we all know that if they run, there's not much of a movie, right?
In this brilliant variation from director Antoine Fuqua, a SEAL team is sent to the interior of Nigeria to rescue an American missionary doctor (Bellucci, whose citizenship by marriage explains her Italian accent). Her jungle hospital lies in the way of a rebel army column. When the commandos get there, she refuses to leave without "her people." It's part of the romanticism of the piece that the team commander, El Tee Waters ("El Tee" being military speak for Lieutenant, i.e., Lt.) tries to swindle her into going, then kidnaps her but finally has a change of heart -- knowing that those he leaves behind will become bayonet dummies for the pursuing soldiers -- and waves off the air evacuation. With his team and the 70 refugees, they go for a little walk in the warm African sun.
Bellucci's presence in the center of a holocaust seems quite unlikely. Would the SEALs have stayed behind if the doctor were played by, say, Linda Hunt? Maybe not, whereas just about anybody would have stayed for Monica. But then Fuqua never plays up her beauty, and she's one of those performers with what might be called life force: You feel her belief in her cause, which is the mainspring of the plot. Equally, you admire her for willing to get with the gunky work of action pix, which is to get grimy, sweaty, bloody and have a mother of a bad hair day.
The movie wisely never gives us too much: Each commando has a face, a personality, a set of quirks, but no backstory. Not even Waters is grounded in a past: He's just a bullet-headed war hound interested in mission and little else. The guys are wonderful but never campy, and Fuqua -- a great director of actors, who helped Denzel Washington win his Oscar in "Training Day" -- makes them more than men with dirty faces and identical kits; he never stereotypes them along comic "Dirty Dozen" lines. These seem like the real deal, especially Atkins (Cole Hauser) as the team medic.
Fuqua also recognizes the weird beauty of soldiers. Whether this is homoerotic or just erotic, I am not sure, but it's something artists have responded to for thousands of years (look at the Greek hoplite statues if you doubt me). This film offers up a good portfolio of what might be called commando calendar art: It's full of dirty, haggard men in sweaty camouflage battle dress, festooned with ammo belts and tattoos, laboring under a load of automatic weapons that would break a donkey's back, who look simply gorgeous.
The politics -- both of the movie and of the moment -- are interesting. I infer that Fuqua, who is black, brings such passion and precision to the project because he's furious that the United States did nothing during the genocide in Rwanda, very like the genocide portrayed here. This movie seems to have a fever-dream quality to it, as if he wants desperately to rewrite what happened then, to substitute a scenario in which SEALs, backed by F-16s, came to the rescue of hundreds, if not thousands.
But "Tears of the Sun" launches at the height of another crisis, with Rwanda long forgotten. It seems to be an endorsement of the American right of intervention, just when most of Hollywood, led by commandos like George Clooney and Janeane Garafolo, is in the opposition. When the film ends with Burke's famous line "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing," one wonders who is listening.
Tears of the Sun (119 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and battle gore.