Rape, Pillage, Jungle Trek, Soaring Music

“George fucking Bush, played by Bruce fucking Willis,” moaned the man sitting in front of me. We were suffering through a violent war epic calle d Tears of the Sun , and I saw what he meant. At a time when every White House briefing sounds like a threat, a frightened child hides under every bed, the stores are out of duct tape, the economy braces for combat and the only person in Washington who makes any sense is Maureen Dowd, why are we drowning in war movies? As if the cable yakfests were not spreading enough gloom and doom already, on the cable movie channels it’s John Wayne 24/7. Now this.

Tears of the Sun diverts the action to riots in Nigeria, where 120 million people are at odds with their government and each other. Naturally, the U.S. forces are on the case. When Bruce Willis, as Lt. A.K. Waters, alights from a helicopter with a unit of Navy SEALs-smudged and bald and clutching his weapons with all the personality of a lug nut-bones crack and blood spurts before you can say, “Huh?” His objective: to rescue from the advancing native tribes Dr. Lena Hendricks (Monica Bellucci), the Italian-born, U.S.-passport-carrying doctor and wife of a massacred American surgeon who, with the help of her missionary friends, is operating a small hospital behind enemy lines.

Having survived the brutality of Irréversible, Ms. Bellucci looks none the worse for wear, even without a stitch of makeup. Her character’s no pushover, either: Lena refuses to leave the hostile region unless the 70 wounded patients in her Catholic mission go with her. Safe refuge is promised for the children, but the always-magnanimous U.S. military refuses to evacuate the rest-which leaves Waters and Lena to hike through the jungle the best way they can. To make matters worse, Lena is hiding the only surviving son of the assassinated democratic president and future ruler of the country, and the rebel forces will stop at nothing to kill them all. The rest is a routine military-reconnaissance picture with the savages in hot pursuit, killing off half the cast before they can reach the refugee camp. In lieu of a plot, macho director Antoine Fuqua ( Replacement Killers, Training Day ) zeroes in on the rape and slaughter of an entire village, concentrating on the most gruesome details, while Mr. Willis gets his gashed head stitched up without so much as a flinch.

Raping and pillaging and blowing things up is mainly what this movie is about, although it claims to show how the most robotic, dehumanized soldiers can be transformed by human suffering. The SEALs start out as the gung-ho zombies from Black Hawk Down and end up disobeying orders to save the innocent victims of a conflict they don’t understand. The atrocities of war, it’s suggested, exact a huge toll on those who are caught in the rifle fire, and even a stoic, humorless hard-ass like Mr. Willis can develop a conscience when he has an endangered baby in his arms. In the broader context, Tears of the Sun can be viewed as an indictment of the deplorable U.S. policies that aided in the murderous “ethnic cleansing” of nearly one million Africans in Rwanda in 1994. But the film is less than persuasive when it pricks Mr. Willis’ conscience and turns him, through serendipity, into an adopted African “brother.” The actor, a fervent hawk and ardent George W. Bush supporter, seems at cross-purposes here. As one critic has already pointed out, maybe this is what they mean by the term “compassionate conservatism.” At any rate, the movie is too heavy-handed to do much good. Mr. Willis, Ms. Bellucci and the suicidal rescuers are rather obvious-and corny-metaphors for the Western powers, while the desperate cardboard natives stand in for Third World nations jockeying for position at the U.N. bargaining table. When the Africans start hugging Mr. Willis and saying “We will always love you!” while the music soars, the only thing missing is a Bob Hope tour. The insinuation of a future romance between Waters and Lena is just a diversionary tactic to keep our minds off the current situation in Iraq. (We may bomb you off the planet, but we still care .) Anyone for croquet?

A Trail of Blood

William Friedkin’s trifling bloodbath The Hunted is Rambo meets The Fugitiv e. You’ve heard the phrase “cut to the chase”: In The Hunted, the chase is all there is. Two Oscar winners, Tommy Lee Jones and Benicio Del Toro, square off against each other with darts, arrows, and even crude knives that they carve out of rocks over the course of this ludicrous, plotless, ho-hum tale of lurid confrontation. Mr. Jones plays L.T. Bonham, a forest ranger who tracks down wounded wildlife for a living. He’s first shown in the frozen wastes of British Columbia, following drops of crimson blood in the white snow to a white wolf caught in a trap. He speaks slowly and gently to the growling wolf, almost in a trance, then frees its leg from a trap, soothes it with an herbal salve extracted from the soil, and sends it on its way. What a guy.

But Bonham’s talent as a wolf whisperer is not what this movie is about. In an earlier career, he trained mercenaries to become killing machines for the good old U.S. military. Now he’s been called back into service by the F.B.I. to track and kill his favorite trainee-a decorated war hero named Aaron Hallam (Mr. Del Toro), who has gone off the radar and turned into a psychotic serial killer. Aaron, a skilled tracker and hunter himself, outwits his pursuers and guts them like halibut fillets before they even know he’s entered the room. Adversaries with nine-millimeter automatics and high-speed telescopic lenses don’t stand a chance against his home-made serrated knife. The only man who can find him is the father figure who taught him everything he knows-but for some inexplicable reason, the smarmy suits from the Justice Department forbid anyone to arrest, persecute, photograph or prosecute Aaron even if he’s captured. L.T. ignores them all and hits the ground running, ready for bear.

Hunting each other like prey through Oregon woods, city parks, bridges, underground sewers, elevated subway trains and endless booby traps, instructor and pupil outsmart each other every tired inch of the terrain, trying to survive. Slicing and dicing their way to the final showdown, they both look like sushi. Mr. Friedkin, who has always been short on logic and long on tricks, resorts to his trademark car chases and soups up the soundtrack until every slash of an artery sounds like a rent in a windjammer sail. The suspense is generated not by violence but by camera angles: for example, the lens taking on the point of view of a man emerging from a manhole or peering through a waterfall. Meanwhile, the film never bothers to explain the root of the killer’s psychosis (he didn’t like Kosovo?), and the actors just look numb. Oh, yes-there’s a Biblical metaphor working overtime about Abraham being ordered by God to kill his son Isaac. Mr. Jones is obviously Abraham, Mr. Del Toro Isaac, and the U. S. government God. What time, you may very well ask, is the next showing of Chicago ?

As Good as it Gets

While the movies aimlessly grope and helplessly flail, the theater is soaring triumphantly-not on Broadway, but at the New York City Opera, where a sensational revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music has arrived for a limited run on the 30th anniversary of its historic birth. Mature, stylish, witty, elegantly performed, stunningly costumed and impeccably directed, it’s everything an intelligent theatergoer could hope for-and more. Our town may have experienced happier days, but it’s still the only cultural metropolis with the power and sophistication to lure people with the stature of Jeremy Irons, Juliet Stevenson and Claire Bloom to the same stage without a cause to promote, a political speech to make, or an opportunity to get rich quick. And an opera stage, too! Get to Lincoln Center as fast as you can. Scott Ellis’ production is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

A Little Night Music was an inspiration from the start. The source was Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, filmed as a quadrille for star-crossed lovers on one of those long, languid nights in Sweden where the sun barely sets and twilight lingers forever-a perfect panorama for waltzes and minuets. The style blends the sentimentality of operetta with Mr. Sondheim’s famous genius for cynical lyrics, making one of his most luscious scores perfect for the opera stage. Much debate has raged about the wisdom of casting actors who sing a little with singers who act a little, but from the very first, this show has never insisted on perfect voices. In any case, I can’t imagine more beatific casting than Jeremy Irons as Fredrik, the morose, widowed barrister lusting for love in an unconsummated new marriage to Anne (Kristin Huxhold), a bored virgin of 18; or the versatile, meticulous British actress Juliet Stevenson as the aptly named Desirée, the glamorous stage star he once loved; or the radiant Claire Bloom as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother and a once-coveted courtesan who counted kings and dukes among her cherished “liaisons.” Fredrik’s lumpish, lovesick son, Henrik (Danny Gurwin), a dour divinity student who plays the cello, is almost mad with unrequited desire for his stepmother; Desirée is torn between her reunion with Fredrik, whom she hasn’t seen for 14 years, and her new lover, Count Carl-Magnus (Marc Kudisch), a jealous dragoon who loves to fight duels; while Magnus’ long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Michelle Pawk), plots her own strategy to get her deceitful husband back. Before the waltzes end and the midnight sun smiles, the lovers have all found detours to secret places in their hearts they least expected to find. Sheer rapture.

The problem is that the real voices in the ensemble-a quintet that acts like a Greek chorus between mood shifts-are muffled and lost in the cavernous sponge of acoustics at the New York State Theater. It’s the real actors, unschooled at vocal pyrotechnics, who make every syllable heard and every lyric felt. Thank God for the actors, who raise the artistry in this production to thrilling heights. They may not have voices that soar, but they have words that illuminate. Mr. Irons plays this kind of costumed romp with enviable skill, and his Rex Harrison approach to singing nails every song as though it were being sung for the very first time. Ms. Stevenson is not conventionally beautiful enough to play a worldly seductress with much yeast (Jean Simmons was Desirée in the first London production). But Ms. Stevenson has such consummate control of her craft that her interpretation of Desirée is unique and original. Ms. Bloom is the ultimate old witch who has seen better days; Mr. Kudisch has the right balance between sexuality and pomposity; and on the powerful “Every Day a Little Death,” Ms. Pawk’s cynicism positively shines. With so many white wigs, spangled bodices and gold curtains that open and close with a mind of their own-not to mention all that limp-wristed fluttering of fans-the Act I settings often suggest Mozart’s The Magic Flute more than Bergman’s gossamer Smiles of a Summer Night . But when the scene moves to the country after intermission, the period motor cars and bicycles built for two blend with the dappled bucolic pastels and white ribbons hanging from the ceiling (playing Swedish birch trees) in an intoxicating brew of stage magic that is nothing short of breathtaking.

The seamless Sondheim score, vigorously conducted by Paul Gemignani and retaining the fabulous orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick from the Broadway original, are worth any price to hear again. CD’s and long-playing soundtrack albums do not do A Little Night Music justice: You have to see and hear it in a pristine production such as this one to fully experience its brilliance. The New York City Opera production of A Little Night Music is scheduled to vacate the premises on March 29. Plans for moving it to Broadway are still not final, so move fast-but please don’t miss it. Trust me: If you pass this one up, you don’t know, crave, live or care about the theater. Excelsior! This is as good as it gets. In a perfect world, it might just stay around forever.

Rape, Pillage, Jungle Trek, Soaring Music