"Blood Diamond" has a lot on its mind and a lot it wants to accomplish. An ambitious project surpassing the capabilities or know-how of a filmmaker can lead to an overblown fizzler, but director Edward Zwick (2003's "The Last Samurai
") is up to the challenge of the material. In telling a fictional story set amongst real-life turmoil unique to Africa, Zwick strives for his picture to be an arresting, high-stakes action-adventure, a gripping drama focusing on human values, greed and the fine line of exploitation, and a history lesson about the dirty diamond trade in turn-of-the-21st-century Sierra Leone. This latter aim includes a couple spots where lecture-worthy monologues take over about ethics and the world population's ability to turn a blind eye on what does not directly affect them, but even this is otherwise handled with thoughtful sophistication and at times startlingly truthful observations.
At 135 minutes, "Blood Diamond" is long but doesn't feel like it; its length is necessary, pummeling through genres, keen character work, and a plot progression that is fascinating to see take shape. When all is over, the viewer doesn't simply forget what they have seen, like so many shallow film releases these days, but are left to consider and reflect upon the abysmal inner workings of a countryand its shameful relationship with American consumersthat are too often swept under the rug. Lest the movie seem like a vaguely disguised history lesson, it only is insofar that the valuable information it covers is scarily, discouragingly non-fiction. Otherwise, as an epically designed film of A-list talent, there hasn't been a more entertaining and satisfying drama released to theaters in months.
For the first time in his career, the unspeakably gifted Leonardo DiCaprio (2006's "The Departed
") finally graduates to looking the part of the adult role he is playing. At thirty-two, his cherubic appearance is beginning to wear off, replaced with a face of character, depth and ruggedness. This serves him extraordinarily well as Danny Archer, a Zimbabwe resident and former mercenary who makes a living out of selling the conflict diamonds he manages to smuggle out of Sierra Leone, circa 1999, to overseas jewelry companies. While temporarily in lockup for the aforementioned smuggling, Danny overhears the story of fellow jailmate and South African-born Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a poor fisherman-turned-slave whose family has been torn away from him amidst a Civil War occurring across the land. Allegedly, Solomon has hidden the most valuable of all diamondsnamed "blood diamonds"in a secret place within the jungle, and Danny will do whatever it takes to get a cut of its worth.
Having agreed to team up for their own self-minded reasons, further help to Danny and Solomon comes in the form of Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a hard-working American journalist whose cutthroat attitude acts as a counterpoint to her idealistic desire to change the world. Maddy has access to the manifests detailing where Solomon's wife and children are located, but a brief rekindling between family members leads to the terrifying discovery that Solomon's pride and joyhis only son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers)has been kidnapped by a brainwashing militia who train children to be extremist soldiers. As the three of them move further into dangerous territory and Maddy and Danny are drawn closer to each other after an agreement to sell out his central company buyer Van De Kamp to her, Solomon's priority switches in his mind from finding the buried blood diamond to getting his son back.
"Blood Diamond" is a gritty, violent, hypnotic motion pictureone of the year's best, in factthat is beautifully layered with old-style adventure thrills full of narrow escapes and life-threatening hazards, and the sobering, uncompromising vision of a country's deterioration over diamond trade. The premise and all that the plot encompasses deliciously unravel throughout in surprising ways; the three-dimensional characters have been penned with care and complexity by screenwriter Charles Leavitt (2001's "K-PAX
"), who sees his human creations as flawed but sympathetic people constantly working angles for their own betterment; and the exotic story living closer to home than expected is invigorated with added meaning and weight through director Edward Zwick's attention to personalizing the individual fights Danny, Solomon and Maddy are going through.
The three lead performances are magnificent and any or all of them are worthy of serious Oscar consideration. Leonardo DiCaprio, sporting a tricky area-specific Zimbabwean accent that is plausible against the odds, portrays Danny Archer not as a hero or even a good guy, but as a man willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants. Danny is a pro at his unsavory profession, but hasn't quite learned how to separate his business with his capacity for human emotions. His chemistry with Solomon, sliding in and out of friendship and antagonism, is given solid screen time to breathe and develop so that the viewer feels as if he or she knows these two people by the end.
Djimon Hounsou (2005's "The Island
") is devastating as Solomon, whose hopes for his family's future are shattered and his decision to bury the desperately-wanted blood diamond sets the plot and characters' motivations in motion. All of the fear, resentment and anger that has been built up over the years for Solomon is shatteringly powerful in the hands of Hounsou, who seems to understand his role (and the conflict he faces) through and through. As young son Dia, newcomer Kagiso Kuypers is an astounding force in a small body, and the scenes depicting his brainwashing and training to be a cold-blooded murderer by the RUF is intensely disturbing and admirably unwilling to shy away from the horrors inherent in such a notion.
And as journalist Maddy Bowen, Jennifer Connelly (2005's "Dark Water
") ingratiates warring internal struggles into a character who thinks nothing of exploiting the heartache of others for a good picture or story until her main subject becomes a real person to her rather than an opportunity. A self-proclaimed "crisis junkie," Maddy's passion for her job and predilection underneath it all to hold out hope that the awful things in life have the ability to turn around in positive ways is blessed with an articulate, vivacious intensity by Connelly. When the actress exits the story in the second half, she is missed; when she returns again for the climax, it's a welcome reintroduction that gives her character an effectively touching arctake note of what she does with her camera in a late scene set at an airplane hangarand a deeper purpose.
"So this is what a million people looks like," Maddy thinks out loud in one scene when she arrives with Solomon at the vast refugee camp where his wife and child are being held. "You might catch a minute of this on CNN, somewhere between the sports and the weather." This line, delivered well by Connelly, could be viewed as a strenuous attempt to throw in preachy commentary, and yet the words couldn't be more true. "Blood Diamond" is riveting and insightful big-budget cinema, marked with ace technical credits, grand location shooting, and characters not easily forgotten. More than that, it helps to expose atrocities still occurring that few people outside of Africa have heard about. There is a down-and-dirty side to what filmmaker Edward Zwick has conceived, but also a poeticism within the small snapshots of life that pass us by when we're not looking. "Blood Diamond" is his most complete and stimulating effort since 1989's "Glory."