Didactic message lost amid chase scenes and gunfire

Blood Diamond

on December 08, 2006 by Mark Keizer
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Let 2006 be known as the year Hollywood took all the fun out of our vices. In Fast Food Nation, carnivorous consumers learned their double-double cheeseburgers might contain an ingredient harvested from the other, smellier end of the cow. In Thank You For Smoking, the four people left on Earth unaware that cigarette companies know their product causes cancer had their heads screwed back on. Now comes Blood Diamond, the new high-octane civics lesson from Ed Zwick, a director who flips through Mother Jones to decide what movie he'll be doing next.

Zwick did direct one masterpiece, 1989's Glory, which recounted the unheralded bravery, if not the very existence, of the 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, a Civil War troop comprised of free black men. Glory saw Zwick striking an equal balance between raising social conscience and blowing up stuff. In Blood Diamond, his ability to stage an action sequence remains undiminished. If only we didn't have to suffer through take-your-medicine lectures about King Leopold between hails of machine gun fire.

The year is 1999. The African nation of Sierra Leone is in the midst of a civil war and, as we continue to learn in Iraq, wars cost a lot of money. So the Revolutionary United Front, the bad guys, force the locals to mine diamonds, which are smuggled out of the country and used to buy weapons. Gems mined for this purpose are called conflict diamonds, and they are the currency of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Rhodesian-born mercenary who smuggles diamonds from Sierra Leone into Liberia after which the gems-for-guns machinery kicks into gear.

The action pivots around an enormous pink diamond found by Solomon Vandy (a tortured Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman forced into labor after the R.U.F. attacks his village and kidnaps his family. He buries the diamond hoping to retrieve it later, only to be captured and jailed in a government raid. Danny learns of the diamond's existence, so Vandy agrees to take him to the buried bling if Danny helps Vandy retrieve son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers), who's been forcibly recruited into the R.U.F. The scenes of Dia being turned into a child soldier, while based on sad reality, show Zwick shamelessly building his case. It's uncomfortable to watch, but it works. Ten seconds of preteen boys being taught to pick up machine guns and murder their countrymen is enough to make Angelina Jolie return to Africa and adopt the whole damn continent.

Most of the action was shot in Africa, which is mined for all its color and dusty beauty by cinematographer Eduardo Serra ( Girl With the Pearl Earring ). Occasionally, we're taken to the gleaming conference room of a G8 summit where white men in crisp, blue suits are juxtaposed against blacks toiling in the mud, digging for precious stones. If the point isn't being pounded home visually, it's being conveyed with didactic dialogue (did you know two-thirds of the world's diamond sales are in the U.S. and that Africa is “an entire country made homeless”?) and end title graphics that ask us to “insist that a diamond is conflict-free.”

As a morally bankrupt smuggler who hopes to use Vandy's diamond to fund his escape from Africa, DiCaprio has completed the turn from boy to man. In The Aviator and The Departed, it was so cute how he wanted to be taken seriously. Now, showing off a buff body and decent accent, he commands the heavy attention of a performer comfortable in his own actorly skin. The same can't be said for a miscast Jennifer Connelly, who plays Maddy, a crusading American journalist (in the movies, are there any other kind?). We're asked to believe that the end of conflict diamond mining depends on her presumably blistering exposé, even though we take it on faith that the vaguely named magazine she writes for is actually read by anybody. Maddy and Danny need each other: He has inside information on the whys and wherefores of diamond smuggling, and she has journalistic access and nice breasts. She also has the ability to condemn the American media for ignoring African injustice altogether, claiming that CNN will run the story “somewhere between sports and weather.” In Blood Diamond, every character is available to give Zwick's opinion.

There's a real disconnect between asking an audience to enjoy a white-knuckle ride through the African jungle, then denying your fiancé a diamond wedding ring because Ed Zwick says diamonds are bad. It's even vaguely disrespectful to assume that the only way the masses will absorb the film's message is to hire that guy from Titanic and gather all the squibs in Hollywood and set them off before the final fade out. The Constant Gardener managed to indict the pharmaceutical industry (and earn four Oscar nominations) using very little Hollywood imagineering. This is not to say Blood Diamond isn't an expertly crafted, sometimes exciting, piece of bullet-riddled mayhem. It surely is. But the very audience most likely to respond to blood and gunfire is least likely to respond to stridently delivered messages. Distributor: Warner Bros.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly
Director: Edward Zwick
Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt
Producers: Paula Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Graham King and Gillian Gorfil
Genre: Action adventure
Rating: R for strong violence and language
Running time: 143 min.
Release date: December 8, 2006

Tags: eonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly Director, Edward Zwick Screenwriter: Charles Leavitt Producers: Paula Weinstein, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Graham King, Gillian Gorfil, Warner Bros, Action adventure
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