Set during a particularly vicious 1999 civil war in Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond uses diamond smuggling as a springboard for a wide-ranging examination of politics, economics, journalism, and racial identity. The film offers deeply focused performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou and a horrifying vision of the chaos of modern-day warfare, as well as several unnecessarily off-putting speeches that scold viewers about events largely out of their control. The effect is sometimes like watching a lavishly mounted public service announcement.
A prologue explains how conflict or blood diamonds are used to finance rebel movements in countries at war. Soldiers suddenly attack a quiet village outside the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. Fisherman Solomon Vandy (Hounsou) is taken captive while defending his family, and forced to mine diamonds in a remote rebel stronghold. A parallel story follows Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a former mercenary from Zimbabwe who now smuggles gems from Sierra Leone to Liberia. By chance both wind up in the same jail in Freetown. When Archer learns that Vandy has stashed a large diamond, he sees a way out of his debts to hired gun Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo).
Vandy is reluctant to work with Archer until rebels overrun the city. American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) helps them flee to a refugee camp, where Vandy learns that his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) may have been indoctrinated into the rebel army. Despite an imminent attack by Coetzee’s troops, Archer still marches Vandy into rebel territory to retrieve the diamond.
In his previous films, notably Glory, director Edward Zwick has portrayed warfare in strikingly realistic ways. But nothing in his work matches the scale or the violence of the assault on Freetown. This masterfully orchestrated sequence gives a vivid picture of how brutal and senseless urban fighting can be, where anyone you see can kill you. Viewers may feel a wringing sense of relief afterwards, but they may also wonder if the filmmakers aren’t exploiting a deadly situation as the equivalent of an exciting video game.
The screenwriters use a schoolteacher to provide an opposing, optimistic point of view, but for the most part Blood Diamond’s tone is cynical, almost hopeless. That doesn’t prevent Connelly’s journalist from delivering speeches about how smuggling is evil, points rendered redundant by the images on the screen.
Zwick sometimes seems to lose track of his characters, who advance and regress in relationships according to plot demands rather than believable emotional growth. One late-inning display of savagery from Archer seems especially out of place. Still, DiCaprio is never less than convincing as an ex-mercenary out for himself, a real accomplishment given how frequently movies have mishandled similar characters. His participation may have been needed to finance the film, and he may have insisted on portraying what his character calls a Rhodesian. But there is the nagging sense that his role might have worked just as well if written as an American.
Other issues are also troubling, such as how one character can accept millions but still lecture against selling smuggled gems. Still, despite its flaws, Blood Diamond is an excellently shot and edited adventure with two commanding performances.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Sheen, Arnold Vosloo, Kagiso Kuypers, David Harewood, Basil Wallace, Ntare Mwine, Stephen Collins, Ato Essandoh, Benu Mabhena, Anthony Coleman, Percy Matsemela.
Crew: Directed by Edward Zwick. Screenplay by Charles Leavitt. Story by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell. Produced by Paula Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Graham King, Gillian Gorfil, Gregory Jacobs. Executive producers: Len Amato, Kevin De La Noy, Benjamin Waisbren. Director of photography: Eduardo Serra. Production designer: Dan Weil. Edited by Steven Rosenblum. Music by James Newton Howard. Costume designer: Ngila Dickson. Visual effects supervisor: Jeffrey A. Okun. A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation, in association with Virtual Studios, of a Spring Creek/Bedford Falls production, in association with Initial Entertainment Group.
Warner Bros./Color/2.35/Dolby Digital, DTS & SDDS/140 mins./Rated R