Blood Diamond has too many politics to be an action movie, too little hanky panky to be a romantic drama, and too many chase scenes to be real social activism. It's action drama
against the backdrop of political turmoil -- in this case, Sierra Leone in 1999 -- where it is tricky to come off as neither tritely do-gooder nor exploitative. In this case, the effort is surprisingly successful.Djimon Hounsou
plays Solomon Vendy, a fisherman who just wants a better life for his son. But when the rebels come, he is unwillingly thrust into the midst of the violence -- his family is scattered, he is captured, their village is decimated. He is working the diamond mines at gunpoint when he catches, and hides, an epic stone -- huge, flawless, and slightly pink. Article continues below
Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio
, coating his usual cocky charm in a credible Zimbabwe-by-way-of-South Africa accent) is an opportunistic, self-proclaimed soldier of fortune. He's a sometimes-smuggler keen for Solomon's rock, because it looks like his ticket off the continent.
And there's intrepid girl reporter Maddy (Jennifer Connelly
), a plucky American journalist who naively believes that if she writes the one great exposť, the West will rise up in a tizzy against what the first world demand for diamonds and healthy profits has wrought in Sierra Leone.
These three band together in search of the diamond, dodging folks on every side who could kill them for no reason at all, but would eagerly do so to get the diamond. But Blood Diamond is not about this worst-conceived buddy road adventure ever; it's just a device to talk about how a country torn apart by both outside forces and internal strife, not to mention a pretty universal greed.
One thing Blood Diamond does, and very well, is vividly depict the randomness inherent in the machine of war. It's very clear that when there are clashes over resources, or land, or culture in Africa, there are no good guys. Western armies, government troops, rebel forces -- they all mow people down with the same dispassionate thoroughness.
As Archer and Solomon's protracted quest to recover the diamond stretches on and on, though, the movie devolves into a Magical School Bus tour of the atrocities and the good being done in the ravaged country. While both are worth showing, certainly, the bloated run time could have been eased if the script had stuck to relevant scenes, instead of veering off into National Geographic documentary territory of covering endless horrors and the small oases of hope.
I admit that I went into Blood Diamond with a certain level of trepidation. Neither the director (Edward Zwick
, of The Last Samurai) nor the screenwriter (Charles Leavitt, who wrote K-PAX) are any stranger to overwrought treacle. It could have been very, very bad. But while the film is easily 30 minutes too long, and far too fond of dramatic heft -- a profound moment dares not go by without an overwhelming swell in music -- it also balances the action with the preachin' quite ably.
It helps, certainly, that the actors are both credible and likable. Too often, skill is replaced with paternalistic moralizing to make social activist films appropriately "powerful," but all three leads are solid actors, especially in these parts. Connelly is well-suited to the pretty, earnest, and well-meaning lady, and Hounsou could be soulful in a toothpaste commercial.
DiCaprio, though, has always been a great actor (despite his flirtation with the Teen Beat scene). This year, with The Departed and now this, he has also figured out how to be a stellar grown-up leading man (The key is apparently in pairing his existing talent with just enough accent to mask his teenager voice). He even manages to remain convincing at the film's end, when Archer's character undergoes several unnecessary and abrupt personality shifts that speak to either sloppy scripting or heavy and incoherent editing.
Despite my initial reservations, Blood Diamond largely pulls it all off. Though it does at times veer over into the dangerous territory of the Socially Responsible Film, complete with haphazard politics and patronizing, Western good intentions, it spends enough time on big explosions and speedy action to keep it out of Sally Struthers, feed-the-children territory.