"Blood Diamond," the latest fusion of Hollywood entertainment and African-condition tragedy, presents us with the matter of diamonds-for-arms trading, a practice that, while reportedly curbed now, helped further the civil war that brutally raged in 1990s Sierra Leone. Surely, that’s a terrific topic either for the sort of "issue drama" that studios tout at statuette time or for a rough-and-tumble adventure set on the photogenic continent. But while director Edward Zwick displays both intentions, neither plays out satisfactorily.
Echoing fare such as "Hotel Rwanda," the film contains a backdrop of suffering and characters whose transformations counteract the grimness. It’s indeed a Zwick flick: conventional entertainment laced with worthy themes but ruined by falseness and mediocrity, from the director of "The Last Samurai" and "Glory."
Set mostly in Sierra Leone, the story unites opportunistic white Zimbabwean smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and decent Mende fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) in a symbiotic attempt to benefit from a humongous diamond Solomon’s hidden. Viewing the stone as his ticket out of plunderland, Danny convinces Solomon to give him the gem in return for his assistance in finding Solomon’s war-scattered family. Key to their plan is American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly). She helps them reach rebel territory in exchange for their testimony for a story she’s writing on "conflict" diamonds and their trail — arms, carnage, Western profits.
Basically, everybody’s being used, and Danny and Solomon are running for their lives.
In bits, the movie works. Zwick includes powerful images of the horrors of war. More amusingly, we get cute banter and thugs who melt when asked to pose for magazine covers.
But this is too often either a popcorn flick with insufficient pop or a social drama that doesn’t shake us like it should.
There’s heartbreaking stuff — Solomon’s preteen son being converted into a guerilla; rebels chopping off captives’ hands — but Zwick and screenwriter Charles Leavitt weaken things by heaping on mushy histrionics surrounding Solomon’s family. Solomon’s a noble-native caricature. Callous Danny experiences predictable redemption. Connelly’s idealistic Maddy acts as the filmmakers’ preachy mouthpiece.
DiCaprio and Hounsou fare better. DiCaprio delivers a winning movie-star turn that combines old-fashioned adventure heroism with contemporary amorality. Hounsou, is strong, too, and outshines DiCaprio in the lengthy emotive passages that Zwick, apparently fond of swollen anguish, supplies.
None of the above is boring, but the film amounts to tear-jerking over deeper wham. In short, cubic zirconium.
Blood Diamond **
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Kagiso Kuypers
Written by Charles Leavitt
Directed by Edward Zwick
Running time 2 hours, 18 minutes