- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

''I'm curious myself," reflects Antoine Fuqua, alluding to the release of his new movie "Tears of the Sun," which opened yesterday and appears primed for an explosive takeoff at the box office and possibly as a source of topical provocation as well.

"Tears" champions the fictional exploits of American soldiers on a rescue mission in Africa, just as American military capacity is about to be tested in earnest, a test that quite a few Hollywood fixtures would prefer to see averted, or even botched.

"Our hopes are high for a lot of reasons," Mr. Fuqua says during a telephone conversation. "The preview response has been very encouraging. Because of the subject matter I'd love for a lot of people to see it."

Moviegoers who relish kinetic excitement and old-fashioned martial heroism should find "Tears of the Sun" an irresistible, though sometimes graphically harrowing, rouser. A suspenseful combat spectacle, it depicts the rescue of a group of Nigerian refugees, Ibos, isolated at a remote medical mission and endangered by the outbreak of another ruthless civil war. Their safe passage becomes the responsibility, assumed reluctantly, of an exemplary Navy SEAL squadron, a "magnificent eight" of stealth and fighting prowess under the command of a taciturn Bruce Willis.

It's easy to envision the movie as the top draw in the theatrical marketplace for the next several weeks a period overlapping both the Screen Actors Guild Awards tomorrow night and the Academy Awards on March 23. Very much pro-military, the film thrives on the valorous behavior of the SEAL team. Like such popular predecessors as "Black Hawk Down," "We Were Soldiers" and "Antwone Fisher," Mr. Fuqua's picture also depended on the expertise of the American military for technical authenticity.

"Tears" cannot be fairly deplored as a "pro-war" picture, a label Mr. Fuqua himself would vehemently reject, because the principal characters are determined to shield the potential victims of an army bent on sectarian annihilation. However, this is the sort of high-voltage crowd-pleaser that won't be easily accepted by Hollywood's anti-war cohorts. It threatens to underline the futility and vanity that already discredit overprivileged doves, especially if some birds of this feather are planning to exploit the SAG or Oscar ceremonies as platforms for righteous indignation.

The project incorporates two subjects that have preoccupied Mr. Fuqua for several years: the recurrent calamity of mass political enmity and slaughter in Africa; and the exploits of American Special Forces. The director, a 37-year-old Pittsburgh native, made his feature debut only five years ago as a kind of pinch-hitter for John Woo with the crime thriller "The Replacement Killers." He began to demonstrate a distinctive flair for cinematic sensationalism a year ago while maneuvering Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke through "Training Day," a fable of police corruption and treachery that resulted in an Academy Award for Mr. Washington.

In striking contrast to the protagonist of "Training Day," Mr. Willis is not a disgrace to the uniform. No divided loyalties or predatory schemes undermine the tightknit group that is choppered into a danger zone from the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman, just one impressive indication of the Defense Department and U.S. Navy cooperation that enhanced Mr. Fuqua's war story.

"I have a passion for the Special Forces guys," Mr. Fuqua says. "I know a lot of them and wanted to say something about them. I've had that in mind for the last 15 or 16 years. I was always fascinated with people who sacrificed themselves for others. Especially the guys in Special Forces and the Navy SEALS. They're anonymous heroes."

A former SEAL, Harry Humphries, became a personal friend some time ago and put Mr. Fuqua in touch with many of his former comrades. Not coincidentally, Mr. Humphries was the military technical adviser on "Tears of the Sun." He had similar responsibilities on the Ridley Scott movies "G.I. Jane" and "Black Hawk Down."

"It's not an exaggeration to say that Harry brought the whole Navy to us," Mr. Fuqua remarks.

As a black American, Antoine Fuqua also felt a special obligation to deal candidly with the political violence of contemporary Africa at some point in his career. "Over the last 10 years or so," he says, "I've been contemplating a film like this. I didn't think the opportunity would be available quite this soon. I acquired the rights to a book called 'Monster,' which I still want to film. It's about a Los Angeles gangbanger. I was trying to understand the psychology behind the kind of genocide that takes place between young black men in our own country. But once you get into it, you realize it isn't just here where blacks have been killing each other in record numbers. It's happening all over the place, particularly in Africa. In Africa the motives are more political and religious and have longer tribal origins. And the killers don't discriminate at all. They'll go after women and children."

Mr. Fuqua doesn't think it imperative that accounts of slaughter and "ethnic cleansing" in contemporary Africa be filtered through the perspective of a black filmmaker. He believes that such colleagues as Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone could do justice to African subject matter. "But much more than those guys, I have a responsibility to do it," he says.

The director's agent brought the script for "Tears of the Sun" to his attention with prominent co-producers and Mr. Willis already on board. "It was a very good script. A little more complex than you might expect, which was fine, because I wanted to deal with the politics and intrigue of it all. But once I got involved with Bruce and all the other powers that be, it became more streamlined. There were some complex scenes and some back stories that fell by the wayside in order to get the basic points across. I didn't want to make the rebel soldiers, the pursuers, just bad guys. We portray them committing terrible atrocities, of course, but I wanted to make it clear that they had points of view to justify their behavior. I think they're still a scourge and still completely wrong, but people in Nigeria have been inflicting pain on each other for a long time."

While an undergraduate at the University of West Virginia, Mr. Fuqua had intended to seek a degree in electrical engineering. "I was never really passionate about engineering, but the environment I grew up with hadn't nourished any thoughts of an artistic profession. It was more about survival and playing ball. Art was a hobby at best. At college I enrolled in a survey course about baroque art and found it fascinating. The more I found out about certain painters, from Michelangelo to de Kooning, the more I realized that they weren't so remote from someone like me. Maybe I could become an artist."

He dropped out of college and moved to New York, where the first subsistence job he found, as a production assistant on music videos, turned out to be an indispensable first step to a film directing career. "I learned quickly and became absorbed in the whole process," Mr. Fuqua says. "I realized that the director was the painter. And that he started with script material. I started to write a lot: stories and treatments for videos. Eventually I got to produce videos for the company that had originally hired me as a gofer. But I still wanted to direct and that required more convincing. I wrote and directed a short called 'Exit,' about a conscience-stricken drug dealer at the end of the line. About a year later it got to a producer who was willing to give me a chance directing a music video."

During the early 1990s Mr. Fuqua directed music videos for Stevie Wonder and Toni Braxton, among others. He also directed commercials for corporate clients such as Miller, Reebok, Toyota and Sprite. He has a son from an earlier alliance; he is now married to actress Lela Rochon, and they have an infant daughter.

The success of "Training Day" and the very probable success of "Tears of the Sun" have combined to elevate Mr. Fuqua into the higher echelons of movie spectacle. His next project is a King Arthur saga for producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "We want to humanize Arthur a bit and demystify Merlin a bit," the director says.

Mr. Fuqua trusts that "Tears of the Sun" will not be mistaken for a bellicose affront by anti-war activists in the movie business. "I believe very much in the Edmund Burke quote we use as an epilogue, 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' The world is just a dangerous place. If there are evils and atrocities taking place, you've gotta do something, sooner or later. Diplomacy and money may not get the job done. I hope this movie isn't taken out of context and seen as simply pro-war. I don't want to see anybody go to war. I'd prefer that all those kids of 20 or 21 that I met during our three days on the Harry S. Truman remain safe. But I wanted to make a statement that we do have the power to do some good with our military. Sometimes you need to make that choice, consciously and carefully."

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