'Tears' captures horrors of war

Movies like "Tears of the Sun" and "Black Hawk Down" give the impression Hollywood thinks more about Africa than Washington does these days.

This doesn't mean the thinking is deep. Both these movies take the lazy route of leaving out political context and etching nearly all their African characters as simplistic portraits in helplessness, hostility, or both.

"Tears of the Sun" marks a bit of improvement in the genre, not in three-dimensional characterization - everyone is a stick figure, from Bruce Willis's steely hero on - but in weaving the physical horror of war into its fabric. This falls apart in the last scenes, when swooshing US missiles and booming Columbia Pictures fireballs turn the climax into a reunion of combat-movie clichés.

For its first 90 minutes, though, this is the most doggedly melancholic war movie since "The Thin Red Line."

Mr. Willis plays a battle-hardened lieutenant who penetrates the Nigerian jungle to rescue a Doctors Without Borders physician (Monica Bellucci) before rebel soldiers can threaten her. She refuses to leave without taking along several refugees, raising the logistical challenges facing the lieutenant and his troops - and setting the stage for a surprise about the group he leads through the wilderness to safety in Cameroon.

"Tears of the Sun" was directed by action specialist Antoine Fuqua, who guided Denzel Washington to a best-actor Oscar in "Training Day" last year. Its most striking contributions come from others, though: cinematographer Mauro Fiore, whose camera work sets some sort of record for dark-toned jungle gloom, and composer Hans Zimmer, whose score does the same on a musical level. These elements mesh effectively with the unhurried screenplay.

The result is hardly a subtle film, but it has a stronger sense of combat's real costs and consequences than more sensationalistic pictures like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers" provide. Too bad it doesn't take as much care to detail the humanity of its characters - or reasons for its politics - as it does to build ominous battlefield moods.

• Rated R; contains violence.

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