The race to exploit the vast mineral wealth of Western and Central Africa over the last 15 years has sparked some of the most violent and brutal conflicts the world has never heard of. In particular, the trade in ivory, gold and now diamonds has fueled a savage civil war in the western corner of Africa known as Liberia and Sierra Leone. Government troops, funded by wealthy Western financial concerns, have squared off against the rebel RUF militia over control of the mineral trade. This protracted conflict has left tens of thousands dead and forced hundreds of thousands more to flee to neighboring countries as refugees. Director Edward Zwick’s latest film, “Blood Diamond,” attempts to tackle the issue.
“Blood Diamond” stars the resurgent Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Departed”) as Danny Archer, a native of Zimbabwe (though he still insists on calling it Rhodesia) and soldier of fortune who makes a dangerous living smuggling diamonds and weapons between Sierra Leone and Liberia. After being caught by border guards and thrown in prison, Danny comes in contact with Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, “The Island”), a local fisherman whose village was sacked by the RUF, and who has been enslaved in a diamond mine. Upon overhearing that Solomon may have hidden a pink diamond the size of a bird’s egg, Danny hatches a plan to recover the diamond and get out of Africa for good. What follows in an uneasy mix of violent action and social commentary.
The film’s biggest problem is that it tries to juggle too many themes at once. We have Danny’s moral redemption, Solomon’s search for his son, the indictment of global greed, and the diamond cartels and the straight ahead action stuff. That’s a lot of material, and the film struggles to grant sufficient weight to each one. But this is a Hollywood movie after all, so the action stuff wins out. From a technical standpoint, “Blood Diamond” is on top of its game.
There is a lot of violence here, and director Edward Zwick (“The Last Samurai”) choreographs them with skill and clarity. This is one of the few action films in recent years where tension is actually generated by the on-screen pyrotechnics rather than faked by an epileptic cameraman. There are several standout action set pieces, including a savage depiction of the RUF’s infamous Operation No Living Thing (where the capital, Freetown, was totally destroyed) and a pulverizing bombardment of a diamond mine from an attack helicopter. Lots of stuff gets bowed up real good and hundreds of extra get cut to pieces by automatic weapons. It’s not particularly graphic in a blood and guts sort of way, but the in-your-face frankness with which it is depicted, particularly the use of child soldiers, is uncompromisingly brutal.
The ‘softer’ subjects are handled with varying degrees of success. Danny’s personal struggle is fairly well fleshed out. We learn quite a bit about his fractured youth (the subtle parallels between Danny’s childhood and the RUF’s child soldiers is a clever and disturbing conceit), and DiCaprio imbues Danny with enough humanity that when the catharsis comes, it feels genuine. On the other hand, Solomon gets a bit short changed. His quest to rescue his son from the RUF has all the potential for being the emotional core of “Blood Diamond”, but it never progresses past being a prop for sparking a few shootouts and generating interpersonal friction between Solomon and Danny.
Hounsou (“Gladiator”) turns in the kind of powerful performance we’ve come to expect, but it is something of a wasted effort on a two-dimensional character like Solomon. Solid supporting turns are given by Jennifer Connelly (“Dark City”) as an idealistic American journalist, Arnold Vosloo (“The Mummy”) as a South African mercenary playing both sides of the conflict, and David Haewood spits pure evil as a sadistic RUF commander.
Although “Blood Diamond” tries to bring a serious issue to the forefront of Western thought, one can’t help but see the irony of movie studios making millions off the depiction of the suffering of others, as it is unlikely that any proceeds from this film will go towards helping the people of Sierra Leone. It is also yet another film where the plight of black Africans is spoon fed to Western audiences through the actions of heroic whites. One of these days a filmmaker will drum up the courage to make a film that tackles these issues from an African’s perspective, but that film is unlikely to make a dent in the box office, so don’t hold your breath.
The film also suffers from the Zwick curse of having one too many endings. Having proffered Danny’s dilemma, Solomon’s struggle, and the evil diamond trade as his main targets, Zwick has to come back and tie up all three plot threads. This requires a protracted ending that steps dangerously close to Bible beating, but fortunately is not as offensively hackneyed as the ending to “The Last Samurai,” so I’ll give Zwick a pass this time.
“Blood Diamond” is in many ways just like its titular stone. It seems quite brilliant from afar, but upon closer inspection, its many flaws become apparent. Zwick makes a game effort at balancing the audience’s thirst for blood with his desire to promote social consciousness. And while the film clearly presents the information it wants to, it doesn’t quite get past the inherent awkwardness of blending education and entertainment. The characters’ heroics seem too ‘larger than life’ for the material, the cynical attitude comes across as too clich’, and the overall effect is more manufactured than natural. Despite these shortcomings, “Blood Diamond” works quite well as a brisk action film that manages to tackle an important yet oft overlooked issue without insulting its audience.
Edward Zwick (director) / Charles Leavitt, C. Gaby Mitchell (screenplay)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio …. Danny Archer
Jennifer Connelly …. Maddy Bowen
Djimon Hounsou …. Solomon Vandy
Michael Sheen …. Simmons
Arnold Vosloo …. The Colonel
Basil Wallace …. Benjamin