During the early 1990s, Sierra Leone erupted in violence when a rebel faction calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to gain control of the country. To fuel their power, they seized control of diamond mines so they could trade the diamonds for arms. Diamonds from these mines are called conflict diamonds, or blood diamonds.
This weekend’s Blood Diamond puts a human face on this place and time in a big box office action-drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Departed) and Djimon Hounsou (Amistad, In America) as two very different African men caught up in the Sierra Leonean conflict. Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind, Requiem for a Dream) also costars as the intrepid American reporter who wants to break the story.
Blood Diamond begins when the village where Solomon Vandy (Hounsou) and his family live is raided by RUF rebels. Many are brutalized and slaughtered and the children are taken for training for the RUF army. While working as a slave in a diamond mine, Solomon finds a large diamond. He knows it will be worth enough to get his family back, so he risks his life and hides it.
After the rebel camp is raided Solomon winds up in jail, where Danny Archer (DiCaprio) cottons onto his secret. If this diamond is as big as Archer thinks, it could spell his freedom from the smuggling trade for good. Once out of jail, Archer meets thrill-junky journalist Maddy Bowen (Connelly) who wants to expose the truth of the blood diamond trade to the world. He realizes he can use her to manipulate Solomon, and the three of them set out on a dangerous trek into rebel territory in search of the diamond.
From the first moments of the movie, director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Courage Under Fire) establishes that Blood Diamond will not show the idealized Africa of lions and safaris you’re used to. Instead, he opens with the strong, shocking raid on the Mende village complete with visceral images of hands being chopped off. Hounsou is seamless as the simple, loving Solomon—the part that DiCaprio called “the heart and soul of the movie.” And DiCaprio himself hits the jaded Southern African former soldier character dead-on.
Indeed, all the teeny-bopperish hype about DiCaprio’s heartthrob status can make you forget about his fairly tremendous skill as an actor—even when his past performances should make that more than obvious. But as soon as you hear the absolutely spot-on South African accent he inhabits for the film, you remember again what kind of talent you’re dealing with. Suddenly, he is Danny Archer—a character that by no means is a noble one. But DiCaprio manages to make Archer more than just the rascal with a heart. He is a tough antihero who can continually revert to unabashed, instantaneous violence. And yet, you still identify with him even when your experience is a whole continent away from his own.
Unfortunately, all that talent cannot help a predictable, saccharine script by screenwriter Charles Leavitt (K-PAX). The dialogue is somewhat facile, and is at its clunkiest with Connelly’s one-dimensional reporter. Her function, evidently, is to serve as the Greek chorus of the film, handling all the exposition and spitting out stereotypical bleeding-heart platitudes about why blood diamonds are bad (duh). Instead of helping the audience to agree with her, the figure is so cliché that it detracts from the power of what otherwise would be good,important points about the Sierra Leonian conflict. Then again, she is also DiCaprio’s love interest, which is interesting since Leavitt says that when he was writing her character, he imagined the word “romance” with a line through it in his head. Yet, just because they don’t ‘seal the deal,’ as it were, doesn’t mean their exchanges aren’t imbued with chemistry.
However, I think the biggest problem with the movie by far is the ongoing level of violence. In a review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest for Salon.com last summer, Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “There’s nothing so tedious as nonstop excitement.” Ditto for Blood Diamond.
Perhaps I feel this way because I went into the screening anticipating a thriller and discovered it was more of a straight-up action flick. And true to that form, the violence and running and explosions are virtually continuous, which I think is both an odd marriage with and a disservice to such a weighty subject matter. Even if the reality of the conflict was far gorier than the movie depicts, the viewer still needs enough time between the violence sequences to process them. You don’t really get that with Blood Diamond, which despite its moral core is really just a highbrow action movie.
And yet, after I left the theater, I did keep thinking about it. So maybe all those explosions just hammered the point home to me after all.
What's on the Disc
This two-disc set comes complete with a handful of well-thought-through extras.
The first disc just has the trailer and director's commentary. The second disc, however, has three behind-the-scenes style featurettes: "Becoming Archer" (focusing on Leonardo DiCaprio), "Journalism on the Front Line" (focusing on Jennifer Connelly), and "Inside the Seige of Freetown" (focusing on how the filmmakers re-enacted this historical event in the movie.
True to Blood Diamond's deeper message, the second disc also has an unusual documentary-style featurette entitled "Blood on the Stone," giving a real-life picture of the problem of blood diamonds. It centers around African journalist Sorious Samura, who lost his brother in the conflict, and who the filmmakers resourced heavily in the making of this project.
It also includes the music video to "Shine on Em", the Nas song used in the movie.