Film: The Return of Bruno

Tears of the Sun puts Bruce Willis back into the spotlight

Woodrow J. Hinton

Action man Bruce Willis used his show-biz muscles to make Tears of the Sun.

Bruce Willis suffers from an "us vs. them" complex of epic proportions. In this case, the "us" is him and the "them" is the media. It's never more obvious than during an interview. He lumps the media together in broad blanket statements, somehow linking hyper-aggressive paparazzi with a simple film writer from Cincinnati.

Phrases peppered throughout the interview like "you guys will write what you want" and "you have your job to do, and I have mine" reveal that, as a reigning Hollywood superstar, Willis has had a long and sometimes disagreeable relationship with media. On a recent Friday morning in Los Angeles, it's painfully obvious that a full day of media interviews promoting his latest film Tears of the Sun is one of the last things he wants to be doing.

"To be honest with you, the whole system of sending actors out to promote films is something I always found a little awkward," he says. "If I could get away with not doing it, I wouldn't do it. But it's part of the culture of films, part of the business."

On the Hollywood radar since Moonlighting's 1985 television debut and a superstar since Die Hard in 1988, Willis knows a thing or two about the business.

He has compiled a surprisingly balanced résumé of testosterone flicks, comedies and dramas. Yet he's still best known for his roles as an action hero. By his estimation, though, people are making that association less these days. That's why it irks him, he says, to be pigeonholed (again, by the media) as a one-trick pony.

"I work hard on every film that I do," Willis says. "I have so little control over how a film is received or perceived. I've gotten to a point in my life where I know what's within my control and what's not."

He's particularly sensitive now because, despite a marketing campaign that says otherwise, Tears of the Sun isn't just a "shoot 'em up" film. Willis calls it a drama, complete with as much emotional firepower as gun power.

Tears follows a group of Navy SEALS, led by Lt. A.K. Waters (Willis), whose mission is to drop into war-torn Africa to rescue Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci). When Kendricks refuses to leave without the 70 refugees in her care, Waters is forced to decide between his mission and his conscience.

Willis says the key for him was keeping emotional subtleties in a film that could be anything but subtle. He wanted the film to maintain its heart without sacrificing its action. It's a fine line, Willis says, but he thinks the film nailed it.

Making Tears of the Sun turned out to be as challenging as anything Willis says he's done. For safety reasons, they shot the film in the Hawaiian jungle instead of Nigeria. But Hollywood amenities were half a world away, he says.

"This was a very technical shoot," Willis says. "This was not a Hollywood set where the catering is over there and the plush trailers were over here. We just sat out in the weeds. I just think the women had it harder than we did. For me, it was like being a kid in the mud."

If filming was a drag, director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) says Willis never showed it. He admired Willis for his "down to business" style and his ability to leave his brooding character on the set when the film wrapped each day.

"What's great about Bruce is when he's not working, he's a lot of fun," Fuqua says. "He's the guy on Moonlighting. Quick wit. Throws parties at his house. Then come Monday, he'll go back to work and go back to that dark world of his character."

It's worth speculating why Willis would choose this project, if it was as challenging to make as it seemed. By his own admission, his success over the past 18 years in the industry has afforded him at least one luxury: to work on what he wants with whom he wants. Asked why he would do a tough drama like Tears of the Sun, and collaborate with a young director like Fuqua, Willis says Tears of the Sun offered him the chance to spotlight the thankless job of the Navy SEALS.

"Those guys are real heroes," he says. "We're just actors."

Since Willis and his production company, Cheyenne Enterprises, owned the rights to the script, it was Willis who cast Fuqua, not the other way around. Willis says he saw an early version of Training Day and that made up his mind.

While Willis has worked with a fair share of established directors in his career, he also has given sophomore auteurs a chance on more than one occasion. Who was M. Night Shyamalan before Willis agreed to do The Sixth Sense? Quentin Tarantino had only directed Reservoir Dogs before Willis took a supporting role in Pulp Fiction. For an actor of his clout, it's notable that he takes such risks.

Willis says that even though he does not look for the next "breakthrough" director when choosing his parts, he's thankful to have worked with so many.

"I just choose to work with people whose work I like," he says. "You meet with people, and you give and take. Antoine had a really great take on this film."

Everyone involved in Tears of the Sun says it will be interesting to see how moviegoers warm up to a Bruce Willis action film with heart. They say it will be even more interesting to see how the film plays in the advent of probable war with Iraq.

Willis plans to pay some attention — especially since he now wears the producer's hat — but he also has moved on to his next project, a sequel to his comedy hit, The Whole Nine Yards.

There are over 50 films on his résumé, but Willis shows no signs of slowing down. His name is attached to at least four more films in the pipeline, including another installment in the Die Hard franchise. For a someone who doesn't like talking about it, Willis appears to be a man who does love his work.

"I still love acting," he says. "I'm still challenged by it. I still get a big kick out of it. If I could paint, I would paint. If I could sculpt, I would do that. One of the things you guys seldom write about is the fact that acting is an artistic expression. You write about everything else, but not that. It's a way to express yourself creatively. And I still enjoy it."

How fitting that just days after his round of interviews for Tears of the Sun, Willis should find the tables turned on the David Letterman show. With Letterman calling in sick on Feb. 26 for the first time in 20 years, guest Willis became guest-host Willis, interviewing Dan Rather and Carmen Electra on national TV.

This reporter wonders whether he saw the irony in that. ©

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