Gads of Guts, Gore and Do-Gooders

Tears of the Sun" may make you weep, but not in the way anyone intended. Handsomely made, well-meaning but finally frustrating and unsatisfying, this perplexing film is an example of a previously unseen hybrid, the socially conscious, humanitarian action movie. It doesn't appear to be a genre with much of a future.

Written by Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo and directed by Antoine Fuqua, once a music video and commercial director who brings considerable craft to the table, "Tears of the Sun" can't decide if it's a Bruce Willis shoot-'em-up or a Human Rights Watch infomercial about ethnic cleansing and the plight of African refugees. Actually, it has decided it wants to be both, but delivering on that intriguing goal is beyond its abilities.

Front and center in the action is Navy SEAL Lieutenant A.K. Waters (Willis), introduced striding off a helicopter with the sun reverentially glistening off his shaved head. As grizzled as Gabby Hayes and twice as tough, a killing machine who treats serious machete wounds like so many paper cuts, Waters looks like he hasn't had any emotional contact since the fall of Saigon.

The lieutenant finds himself on an aircraft carrier "somewhere off the coast of Africa" (don't you just love that phrase) because of made-up events in a real country. There's been a military coup in Nigeria, replacing a government that is largely Christian with a new regime that is Muslim. According to Waters' commanding officer, Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt), "Local militias are killing anyone who goes to a different church."

Waters' assignment is to infiltrate the country and "extract critical personnel ASAP." That doesn't mean he's going to save beleaguered members of the Nigerian Film Critics Association from irate producers, but rather rescue heroic bush doctor Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), American by marriage, and a trio of missionaries doing the Lord's work deep in the jungle. (That foliage may look familiar: Hawaii stood in for Nigeria.)

Going in with the lieutenant is a seven-man elite squad so tough and combat-hardened they have no-nonsense one-syllable nicknames like Red, Zee, Slow, Doc and Flea, and communicate by an elaborate series of hand signals that put traffic control officers to shame.

None of these men is any match for the fierce Dr. Kendricks, who not only looks good in sweaty khakis but also gets to exhibit a stereotypically fiery temperament. "Get those weapons out of my operating room," she snaps at the chastened Americans before insisting that if she agrees to be evacuated, her numerous patients have to leave with her.

The task-oriented lieutenant, whose idea of a long sentence is "Hurry please," has no interest in the doctor's do-gooder philosophy but agrees to evacuate everyone just to keep the plot moving.

Then, like Saul on the road to Damascus, he has a change of heart so unexpected even his squad is perplexed by the hidden humanitarian and friend of the downtrodden who emerges. "I'm confused and the boys are confused," says his No. 2. "When I figure it out," is the laconic reply, "I'll let you know." Some of us are still waiting.

Among the things that likely liberate the lieutenant's secret softie are the genuine atrocities he encounters on the trail. While it is a little disconcerting to see the horrors of war as artfully lighted and composed as they are here, these scenes play like a sincere attempt to show us what really happens when things go bad in Africa and elsewhere with an eye to moving as well as informing an audience.

A serious and worthwhile aim, but "Tears of the Sun" is not up to making it happen. Unlike "Bloody Sunday" (2002) or any number of more successful vehicles, it doesn't have the sensibility or the skills to do what it wants to, to convincingly portray its victims as real people and not just reanimated stereotypes. Colder than it realizes and more generic than it intends, the film can't manage to be as compelling as its creators wanted.

What "Tears of the Sun" does do with its portrait of peerless American fighters making mincemeat out of dark-skinned bad guys is, albeit unintentionally, offer up a propaganda fantasy of how the administration thinks the impending invasion of Iraq is going to go. Starting the film with the Edmund Burke quote about "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" also has more of a pro-invasion spin than might have been anticipated when this film went into production.

On a considerably lighter note, those with long memories for foolishness will remember that Willis' ex-wife, Demi Moore, also took on the Navy SEAL mantle in 1997's "G.I. Jane." Have former spouses ever played members of the same elite combat unit before? Does this portend a future where Sean Penn and Madonna are going to portray Green Berets, or Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis join the Delta Force? You heard it first here.

"Tears of the Sun" is now playing in Russian at several local theaters. See the listings for showtimes.