Coming at the waning end of Bruce Willis' career transition from wisecracking action figure to multi-faceted dramatic actor, 'Tears of the Sun' is, like its star, a movie that falls between two stools. Marketed as just another big-budget action extravaganza, at its heart 'Tears of the Sun' is really an angry polemic, a rallying cry against genocide and political indifference to mass human suffering. And exactly the last thing you'd expect from Hollywood and Willis. So it is no surprise that the film was not a box office hit when released theatrically in 2002 (at least compared to Willis' previous track record), nor did it fare much better on video. Which is a bit of a shame, really. Because aside from some narrative concessions made to accommodate Willis' image as a big-screen brute and typical Hollywood bastardizations of historical fact, it is an impassioned, heartfelt film, one that is if not entirely successful then nevertheless an admirable effort.
Willis stars as hardened Navy S.E.A.L. Lt. A.K. Waters, who is sent into the heart of war-torn Africa on a hazardous assignment to rescue Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), a U.S. citizen who runs a mission. When the steadfast (and, of course, beautiful) doctor refuses to abandon the refugees in her care, Waters finds himself having to choose between following orders and the dictates of his own conscience. Together, they begin a dangerous trek through the deadly jungle, pursued every moment by the rebel militia forces led by the vicious warlord Terwase (Peter Mensah), whose warriors are bent on executing every man, woman and child.
After my recent HD DVD review of the iconic '50s western 'The Searchers,' I received a couple of critical emails that challenged the validity of my negative response to the film's arguable ethical transgressions. But while 'The Searchers' was a case where I found it hard to applaud the technical accomplishments of the film in light of its morality, 'Tears of the Sun' is the opposite. Here's a movie that quite frankly isn't all that good, yet it is so infused with nobility and grand ambition that it inspired me to look beyond its conventions and cliches at the brave heart that beat within.
Admittedly, 'Tears of the Sun' is about as subtle as a cattle prod. There is nothing in this film that is not totally predictable. Nor are there any characters whom are not two-dimensional ciphers, their morals and values mere stand-ins for actual human traits and complex emotions. The plot is also standard-issue military movie fare -- Willis and company invade the African village, they rescue Bellucci, Willis has his Oskar Schindler-like epiphany, and the rest of the film is a frequently boring, paint-by-numbers search-and-destroy mission. Yet for a movie I should have hated, I was ultimately swayed by the depth of the film's anger and its determination to rub our noses in the horrors and atrocities that are a part of daily life in Africa. 'Tears of the Sun' is pissed off, it's director Antoine Fuqua is pissed off, and it seems Willis and the rest of the cast are pissed off, too. I also couldn't tell whether screenwriters Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo were so pissed off that, however idealistic and naive, they actually thought that unassuming audiences expecting 'Die Hard in Africa' would be so blind-sided by what the saw that, rather than be pissed off, they would be inspired to become more socially conscious and politicized.
Certainly, I would like to believe that 'Tears of the Sun' was engineered to be the action movie's answer to 'Hotel Rwanda.' But without a doubt, Willis believes it. Though his character is, ironically, probably the most poorly developed in the movie (Waters is the textbook definition of "one dimensional"), Willis actually makes it work by the sheer force of his patented onscreen stoicism. He barely manages so much as a frown amid all the horrifying genocide taking place around him, yet it speaks volumes. After Kendricks witness a nursing mother having her breasts cut off by machete so she can't feed her newborn (I told you this movie was brutal), all Willis has to do is gower, purse his lips and walk out of the hut, and we know exactly what side of the moral fence his character is on.
Alas, as passionate as it is, few will probably like 'Tears of the Sun.' It is not fun, it doesn't revel in traditional heroism, and there is little uplift despite the predictable "happy" ending. It also will underwhelm action fans, with only two skimpy battle scenes during the film's entire 121-minute runtime. Nor does it offer much in the way of truly involving characters or genuinely complex drama. Yet if good intentions were truly worth their weight in gold, 'Tears of the Sun' would have grossed a billion dollars. In this day and age of mindless, videogame-inspired movies without a thought in their head, I can't help but give points to any movie that at least dares us to think about what's going on in the world around us.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents 'Tears of the Sun' in 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p video, as per usual on Blu-ray. However, while the format has suffered its share of critical slings and arrows ever since its launch earlier this summer (and I've been among some of the most vocal), I can honestly say this is the first transfer I've seen on the format that has totally and unequivocally blew me away. Maybe it is just because my expectations were unfairly lowered these past weeks, but I really thought this is among the best high-def I've yet seen, and frame-per-frame, it is certainly an equal with anything I've yet reviewed on HD DVD.
'Tears of the Sun' already looked great on standard DVD, so I was not surprised that the source material was pristine. I spotted approximately one single white speckle during the film's entire 121-minute runtime -- that's about as good as it gets. Blacks are dead-on and contrast excellent, with the image always perfectly balanced -- whites never bloomed and even the darkest scenes boast terrific shadow delineation. Colors are wonderfully saturated, from the lush greens of the jungle to the deep, midnight blues of the nighttime scenes. Fleshtones, too, are a perfect shade of orange, and thankfully not overpumped. And if that isn't enough, detail is exquisite, with the presentation never looking anything less than three-dimensional throughout. 'Tears of the Sun' is full of close-ups of grizzled military men, and you could spend hours just freeze-framing images and counting every last follicle of stubble on Bruce Willis' five o'clock shadow. Even a friend who popped over unannounced, and who is about as tech-saavy as my grandmother, couldn't help but exclaim, "Wow, that is one #@$&! kick-ass picture!" Score a big one for Blu-ray.
Of course, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't find something to nitpick about. Oddly, the film's non-jungle scenes (of which there are very few) suffered from some artificial color-tweaking, as if looking through a multi-colored filter (the sky's look oddly purple, fleshtones far too orange, etc.) I am sure it is an aesthetic choice on behalf of the filmmakers, but I'm just not a fan of this kind of stuff. More problematic, however, is that I did notice what appeared to be noise and minor blockiness on a few shots. For example, early in the picture, Tom Skerritt is addressing the Navy Seals before they venture into battle, and he's framed in close-up against a flat, gray wall. There appeared to be some visible movement to the "flat" surface, and there are more instances of it later on. However, I'm still stuck using the dreaded Samsung BD-P1000 Blu-ray player, with its faulty noise "correction" chip still intact (dudes, release a firmware upgrade already!) So I'm going to bet that such flaws are far more likely to be indicative of the hardware, and not the software. So one very big thumbs up to this transfer of 'Tears of the Sun.'
'Tears of the Sun' gets a very nice uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track on Blu-ray. However, fans of totally immersive sound design are really going to be disappointed with this one, because outside of the film's two sole action scenes, this track is not nearly as aggressive as one would expect.
Surround use is limited primarily to ambiance -- and it is quite subtle at that. Aside from the occasional instance of effects bleed, such as the blades of a helicopter or the rustling of jungle foliage, there is little sound emanating from the rears. The soundfield only comes alive during the battle scene midway through the flick, and especially the climax. At least at those moments directionality are quite good, with some effective uses of cross-channel panning and tight imaging. Of course, for you diehard lovers of complete 360-degree sound experiences, it is going to be too little, too late.
Otherwise, the technical aspects of this soundtrack are excellent. Dynamic range is reference quality, with even the whispers of the wind in the rears and minor harmonic shadings to the score audible (at least if you have your volume cranked up to a decent level). Low bass also delivers heavy low bass frequencies, though it is gingerly employed except during the infrequent action scenes. Dialogue, too, is well balanced in the mix, with only some of the thicker foreign accents tough to decipher in the quiet scenes.
'Tears of the Sun' has been released on DVD in two versions, a special edition single-disc set and a subsequent Director's Cut version. This Blu-ray release combines the two, retaining most of the key extras and discarding the weakest of the fluff.
First, the bad news. No, the longer Director's Cut is not provided. However, the reinstated material was first presented as Deleted Scenes on the original DVD release, and those are included here. To be honest, the eight scenes didn't do much for me in the first place. 'Tears of the Sun' is just not a character piece, and all of those extra dialogue exchanges just serve to slow the film down and don't really enhance the film's message or its politics. However, I know just as many of you would likely disagree with me, and the longer cut should have been included as well. In any case, the deleted scenes are presented rather poorly in what looks like a weak VHS dub, and at 480i video to boot.
Next up are two audio commentaries, the first with director Antoine Fuqua and the second a "Writer's Observations" track with screenwriters Alex Lasker and Patrick Cirillo. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the latter track better -- though Fuqua is an engaging and intelligent guy, Lasker and Cirillo offered better historical perspective, and their insights help give the kind of background to the characters the script itself does not. I'd say that if you are at all interested in the political background behind 'Tears of the Sun,' go with the writer track; if you want more in-depth production info, go with Fuqua. Of course, ideally both of these tracks would have been edited together, because few of you will probably listen to even one of them, let alone two.
Unfortunately, all three of the featurettes included on the DVD release have been dropped for the Blu-ray. However, only the cultural piece "Voices of Africa," featuring interviews with real-life native Africans, was worth watching anyway, with the standard-issue "Journey to Safety: The Making of 'Tears of the Sun'" EPK and the "Interactive Map of Africa" were a bit too slim and fluffy to care much about. However, taking up the slack is the "Africa Fact Track," which offers a fairly good assortment of cultural, political, historical and production details presented via pop-up text overlays. Helpfully color coded (green means its historical-related, blue means its cast and crew factoids, etc.), there are some good little nuggets here, and it works even better if you enable it along with one of the audio commentaries.
Rounding out the extras is a trailer gallery, featuring previews for current and future Blu-ray releases 'Black Hawk Down,' 'xXx' and 'S.W.A.T.' Unfortunately, there is no actual trailer for 'Tears of the Sun.' Weird...
'Tears of the Sun' really surprised me. I expected another stupid Bruce Willis action movie, and instead got 'Die Hard' meets 'Hotel Rwanda.' No, it doesn't quite work, but at least we finally have a Hollywood film fired up with ambition, and Willis showed real gumption by trying to muck with his previously lucrative, uncaring tough-guy act. I am also very impressed with this Blu-ray release, which delivers the best transfer I've yet seen on the format, and also ports over the better extras from the standard DVD. About my only major complaint is the lack of the Director's Cut version, but the deleted scenes are at least presented as a supplement. In terms of the bottom line, however, 'Tears of the Sun' finally delivers on Blu-ray's promise to deliver top-notch video quality.