But getting a film up and running is a long and well planned-out process. The two war-oriented movies that found their way into theaters on the eve of the U.S.-U.K invasion of Iraq, Tears of the Sun and The Hunted, necessarily had to be scheduled long before that action could be forecast.
Maybe its just the time of year. Black Hawk Down (January, 2002) and We Were Soldiers (March, 2002) were also late winter releases, just like these two. Maybe movies marketers believe the months of cold-weather cabin fever in northern climes send the restless out in search of run-and-gun heroics.
Whatever fateful Olympian calendar accounts for the timing of their appearance, Tears of the Sun and The Hunted are two prime examples of how Hollywood helps to reflect back, reinforce, and shape the American publics view of itself as it girds for war. Specifically, it perpetuates an idea that no matter how aggressive an American military action appears, the fact of the matter is that it is Americans are actually either on the defensive or reacting to the barbarism of foreigners. (Many American commentators during the 1990s accused the Serbs persuasively of suffering from this pathological sense of victimization, but they dont ever seem to see it in their own culture.)
The two movies are such good examples partly because they are bad. Each is directed by a "pseudo-auteur," directors who never achieved the level of competent metteurs-en-scene before they were crowned as artists. William Friedkin, who manned the helm of The Hunted, is an old offender. Beginning with 1973’s The Exorcist, each of the 63-year-old’s films has unfailingly been a sloppy and ultimately dull mixture of pomposity and lurid violence. Tears’s director, 36-year-old Antoine Fuqua, was an award-winner director of music videos for big-time musical acts and of television commercials for major national accounts. He struck box office gold with his previous film, Training Day, a police thriller which won Denzel Washington an Oscar. Tears completes an arc in which Fuqua has been gradually toning down his advertising/video-born razzle-dazzle in favor of a more routinely indifferent Hollywood style, a wise commercial calculation.
(Its probably worth mentioning that Tears is co-written by Alex Lasker, who has some good work including Beyond Rangoon to his credit. But the son of Jane Greer has little to boast about here.)
Both end up aimless driven partly by star demands, but mostly by the need to massage audience expectations. The Hunted, especially, offers to treat sensationalized material: A former U.S. commando turns into a psycho killer. But no less than Tears of the Sun, which deals with the application of massive American force against Third World nations, The Hunted ends up assuaging, not provoking.
The movie begins with a long, extremely violent sequence shot in hellish yellows (one of cinematographer Caleb Deschanels diversions) and set in a village in Kosovo during the Serbian onslaught against ethnic Albanians. Serbian soldiers have killed most of the inhabitants already, but there are still plenty left to be lined up and shot, tortured and raped, actions presented in patient detail. This is witnessed by Aaron Hallam (Benicio Del Toro), the leader of a small special forces sent in to kill the leader of this particular Serbian unit. Hallam gets the job done, but not before witnessing several more gruesome atrocities, including the murder of a little girls parents.
The camera naturally lingers on the suffering, cute little girls face. This pornography of sentimentality is marshaled for the sake of a basic biological reaction that sets the audience up for the murder of the Serbian leader, a brute who gets his with what is now guaranteed to be gratifying violence. For this killing, Hallam receives a high military decoration.
The next people we see Hallam kill are what look like a couple of hunters in an Oregon woods, though the veteran moviegoer will know from the hunters matching camouflage outfits and unpleasant attitudes that they arent just innocent weekenders. So were not too upset when they get knifed by an unseen human predator.
Hallam has gone off reservation and, to cut it short, ends up being hunted down by his old killing instructor, L.T. Bonham (the familiarly annoying Tommy Lee Jones). Lest we get the wrong idea about which side of the moral equation L.T. sits on, we introduced to him as he runs through the woods this time in snowy British Columbia tracking a white wolf in order to free the beautiful animal from a trap (some symbolism, huh?).
Pretty quickly, the movie sets up a typical triangular pattern: Theres Hallam, the good boy gone bad; L.T., the guilt-ridden former friend who has to hunt him down; and, in various personages, the government, who callously used Hallam and now wants to liquidate him.
But even the U.S. government is only held partly to blame; the movies love interest is an ambivalent FBI agent, for example. No, what really turns Hallam into a crazed killer is his exposure to the Serbs. Naturally, The Hunted doesnt do anything to particularize the Serbs or the Kosovo conflict, an event that some unknown percentage of its audience may not even recall. Hallam and his men may just as well have parachuted into a mythic Transylvania amid a horde of vampires as into an actual slice of recent European history. As far as The Hunted is concerned, the Serbs and Albanians arent people, theyre an infection.
Tears of the Sun also features a small special forces unit, this one a SEAL platoon headed by taciturn vet A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis). He and his men have been sent by their captain (Tom Skerrit) into the Nigerian jungle, where a civil war has been blazing along religious and ethnic lines. Their job: To rescue an Italian mission doctor, Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci) who, by virtue of marriage, is an American citizen.
The movie is a throwback in several ways, some of them quite funny: Belluccis hubba-hubba décolletage-baring physician, for example. But the reductive and even demonizing attitude towards black Africans is astonishing, mitigated only by the realization that Hollywoods attitude isnt racist so much as imperial.
While Waters and his men are happy just to grab the doc and go, they’re immediately confronted (naturally) with a will-I-stay-or-will-I-go dilemma. Dr. Hendricks refuses to leave "my" people behind, "her" people being the locals undergoing treatment at her hospital or under her employ. Waters doesn’t want to take them, but grudgingly agrees when it’s clear the doc won’t leave otherwise.
While the natives are all too happy to split, the ferocity of the plundering, murdering, and raping opposition soldiers all too well known to them. But the missionary priest and two nuns Europeans cant bring themselves to leave, though the young Irish colleen is at first tempted to accompany the augmented rescue party to safety.
This is a crucial scene, because its meaning is so clear. The young woman is a pale, small-boned redhead, sweet and defenseless and, because shes a nun, obviously a virgin and intends to remain so. Sitting in our theater seats, were quite happy to see her get ready to leave, then disconsolate when, at the last minute, she changes her mind and decides to stay with her clerical colleagues and those patients too sick to move.
Why? Because shes going to get raped and murdered, thats why. And not just raped, but raped by black men. And not just black men, but by Muslim black men! This is worse than anything than even Margaret Mitchell could have imagined. In Tears of the Sun, the good blacks are all Christian and the bad blacks and they are very, very bad are Muslim. And just in case we havent caught on, we get to watch as the leader of the enemy troops swaggers into the missionary church and rips the cross from the neck of the priest before he orders his head chopped off.
There are all sorts of ways you can define the tensions in Nigeria. Certainly tribal allegiances and religion play a part. But so too do economic disparities, politics, and relations with outside countries and corporations (paging Royal Dutch Shell). Aside from some cursory allusions to democracy, none of this is mentioned in Tears. After Waters decides to play fair with Hendricks and actually spirit "her" people out of Nigeria and into Cameroon, the action devolves into a chase, with the pursuing Muslim army growing larger and larger. Why? Because Waters’s group of refugees turns out to include an Ibo prince, the son of the last democratically elected president. In ways the movie never makes clear because it’s a deliberate muddle both democracy and tribal survival are tied up in the person of this well-spoken, polite young man.
Somehow black Nigerians arent capable of fighting over anything more complicated than tribe and religion. But they do so ferociously, or at least the Muslim ones do, and in ever increasing numbers at that.
Thats why, when the SEALS and the refugees are just about to be overtaken and butchered at the Cameroon border by swarms of black Muslim soldiers, Waterss commander finally relents and sends fighter planes in to bomb and strafe the bad guys. Finally, American technological superiority is matched with, what Tears has been at great pains to assure us is moral superiority, and evil is either blown to smithereens or simply vaporized.
In both cases, the original American military units were small, lightly armed units who relied on stealth and superior intelligence to take on much larger military forces. In both cases, the units were performing rescue missions in the face of genocidal, or nearly genocidal, foes. In one case, a soldier is so shocked by what he sees that hes literally driven mad and in another, the enemy is so brutal that it calls down almost the full might of the American military.
These movies, and others like them, depend on a strange kind of innocence. Even though their protagonists are professional soldiers, they are still innocents abroad. Traveling to the old world, they are shocked at the sight of European decadence. On an expedition to Africa, they are as dismayed as Conrads narrator to see the malaise of mankind.
Action movies dont need to be rounded political statements, of course. But neither The Hunted nor Tears of the Sun spend any time exploring other dynamics aside from the political; grace under pressure or the clash of character, for instance. Looked at from those perspectives, they are bland and dull, almost unbearably so. On the contrary, the two films hold themselves out as political statements, if conspiracy theory can be folded into the larger world of politics. Only this is a conspiracy defined by the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.