Hollywood has found Africa. On the heels of such films as "The Constant Gardener," "Hotel Rwanda," "The Last King of Scotland," and "Catch a Fire," we have "Blood Diamond," set in Sierra Leone in 1999 when rebels are waging war on the government.
Much more so than those earlier films, "Blood Diamond" freely combines political grandstanding with action-adventure heroics. The filmmakers demonstrate how the diamond trade in Africa perpetuates corruption and bloodshed, but they also want to deliver a rip-roaring saga.
It is not easy to make this sort of combination work; usually one or the other element falls down. In this case, the spectacular action sequences take precedence over the more didactic political material. Still, one understands the impulse on the part of director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Charles Leavitt to make something grander than a conventional political thriller.
The film begins with a rebel attack on a village. A local fisherman, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), is enslaved and his family is forced to flee. Laboring in the mining camps, Solomon unearths an enormous diamond and, before escaping during a government raid, hides it.
Zimbabwean diamond smuggler and self-described soldier-of-fortune Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) learns of the diamond and attempts to coax the wary Solomon into retrieving it to save his family. An American journalist, Maddy Brown (Jennifer Connelly), gets wind of Danny's machinations and tries to enlist him in her investigation into the trafficking of "conflict stones" – diamonds mined in war zones and laundered by Western buyers.
To the filmmakers' credit, the relationship between Solomon and Danny never devolves into buddy-buddyism. Solomon is right not to trust Danny, whose charm is just one of many tools in his survival kit. (His stunning brutality is another tool.) The movie also doesn't overdo the romantic angle between Danny and Maddy, at least for most of the way. Maddy is so wised-up to Danny's ploys that, for her, yielding to him would be tantamount to defecting to the dark side.
The most powerful sequences in the movie are the raids that suddenly erupt out of nowhere. Rebels barge through the landscape in their trucks, with hip-hop music blaring like some infernal anthem. When Solomon's 12-year-old son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) is kidnapped by them and brainwashed into being a child soldier, the story's full horror comes through. This bright boy and good son changes into a zombie, and his transformation stands in for all the horrors that war wreaks.
Zwick in the past has often attempted to mix polemics and action and sometimes, as in "Glory," he has succeeded remarkably well. But too often in "Blood Diamond," Leavitt's script lets him down. Especially in the first half of the movie, the characters, particularly Maddy, are mouthpieces for the exposition. The dialogue is stiff. Granted, it's extremely difficult to score political points and still keep everything sharp and lifelike. But it can be done. Roger Spottiswoode's great "Under Fire," about journalists in Nicaragua in 1979, is the best proof.
As strong as "Blood Diamond" is in its best moments, I wish it had been even harder-edged. DiCaprio is remarkable – his work is almost on par with his performance this year in "The Departed" – but ultimately he is playing a swashbuckling good guy. He's in the cynical-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside Bogart mold from "Casablanca."
By contrast, Hounsou's Solomon, although his part is underwritten, has a gravity and force that makes most of the movie's romanticisms seem forced and inauthentic. His son is the real diamond to be retrieved and he never lets us forget it. Grade: B+
• Rated R for strong violence and language.