The biggest problem with Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond — apart from getting used to Leonardo DiCaprio’s accent — is that it’s an Edward Zwick film. Zwick’s penchant for wanting to make “important” films keeps threatening to bog down an otherwise entertaining adventure story with messages that often seem slightly at odds with the material. Zwick appears to want to make another Hotel Rwanda (2004) — or at least something along the lines of Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener (2005) — when, in fact, his story is more like a politically conscious King Solomon’s Mines with doses of Hemingway thrown in.
The story is set against the civil war in Sierra Leone, but it’s not really about that war. It’s about a bunch of people trying to get their hands on an immensely valuable pink diamond that was discovered — and hidden — by a poor fisherman, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, In America). Vandy has been forced into laboring in the diamond fields, and sees his find as the way to a new life and to reuniting himself with his refugee family. Ripping off — or at least borrowing heavily from — the ending of The Constant Gardener and having DiCaprio do a bit of Gary Cooper from the film version of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) don’t really change what the story is really about.
The film’s messages are good ones, yes, and when allowed to be inherent in the story and the characters, they’re valid and effective. Thankfully, that’s most of the time, in no small part due to the characterizations of the three leads — DiCaprio, Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly. It is these performances — and the way the roles are written by Charles Leavitt (K-PAX) — that give the film a power beyond its adventure story underpinnings. At the same time, the performances are all savvy enough to tap into the adventure side of the story in a way that otherwise tends to elude Zwick, who seems more interested in pointing his finger at Western consumers who don’t worry themselves over the source of these precious stones.
DiCaprio and Connelly make the most of the film’s marginally lighter moments in a way that makes the heavier moments — especially the ending — carry a more powerful kick. This isn’t only by contrast; it’s because they’ve created characters that the viewer actually cares about. (In DiCaprio’s case this is an especially notable accomplishment, since his Danny Archer is, at his best, in the anti-hero category.) Hounsou’s character doesn’t allow for much in the way of lightness, which is understandable considering the circumstances (most of his family is in a refugee camp and his son has been trained as a “child soldier”), but the actor manages flashes of an innate sense of humor in the character when it’s called for.
Plus, the relationship of Hounsou’s character with Danny Archer is well-developed and demonstrates that, yes, we actually have made some strides in this old world, since the two characters’ fates in Blood Diamond are essentially a reversal of those of the title character and his black gun bearer in Trader Horn (1931), the granddaddy of all African adventure pictures. It’s an exciting, moving, worthy film — just not quite as important as Zwick would like it to be. Rated R for strong language and violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke