3½ stars (out of four)
"Blood Diamond" is a visually sumptuous, bullet-train-paced thriller with a really provocative theme. Director Edward Zwick and company give it just the kind of explosive elements it needs to hook an audience: a sympathetic protagonist (Djimon Hounsou); a wisecracking hero (Leonardo DiCaprio); a tough, stunning heroine (Jennifer Connelly); fantastically menacing villains (David Harewood, Arnold Vosloo and others); scintillating locations; and action sequences of blood-rushing ferocity.
But they give it something else as well: a convincing portrayal of the negative and dangerous aspects of the world diamond trade, in this case the illicit dealing in "conflict diamonds" or "blood diamonds" -- jewels smuggled out of war-torn nations with profits that further the bloodshed.
That "Blood Diamond" has its serious side, and its makers are co-sponsoring (with Amnesty International and Global Witness) an informational Web site on blood diamonds, shouldn't be held against the film as entertainment. Like "Casablanca" in its day -- and I'm not suggesting the two movies are in the same league -- "Blood Diamond" is set against reality-inspired carnage and chaos that deepen our involvement with the characters.
"Diamond" takes place in civil war-torn Sierra Leone in the 1990s, its story centered on a fisherman (Hounsou as Solomon Vandy) whose life is uprooted and wife and children taken from him when his village is invaded by the murderous rebel forces of boisterous killer Captain Poison (David Harewood). He is captured by Poison's troops, among them some ice-cold boy warrior-killers whose ranks eventually include Solomon's son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers). Solomon, turned into a slave trolling for gems in the river, finds a rare and priceless huge pink diamond and buries it nearby, but not before being spotted by the amiably vicious Poison.
Most of the rest of the film consists of a furious quest to locate that diamond, with Solomon aided by ex-Zimbabwean soldier of fortune and jewel trader Danny Archer (DiCaprio), who's doing it for money, and American journalist Maddy Bowen (Connelly), who's doing it out of idealism and the desire to break a great scandal-scoop exposing big diamond companies.
DiCaprio has given two first-class performances this year -- one here and the other in Scorsese's scorching crime thriller "The Departed" -- and one wouldn't have easily guessed that he could look this buff and tough, a believable hard guy with a not-so-secret sensitive streak. DiCaprio's Danny has an intriguing back story. He's a quick-fisted exsoldier from the place he still calls Rhodesia, and he's vicious when he has to be -- which, in this violent place and time, is almost all the time. Danny's emotional vulnerability, however, surges up regularly -- especially in his last scene.
Connelly is a good, sexy, edgy heroine, and there's also a charge in the realistic torments suffered by Solomon. Hounsou, who first emerged in Spielberg's underrated "Amistad," has tremendous presence and depth, and he's matched by Harewood as Captain Poison. A big, jolly killer, Poison is that most dangerous of bad guys, a likable one with a philosophical rationale for his villainy: "You think I am a devil, but only because I have lived in hell. I want out."
So do Danny, Solomon and his family. As the quest goes on, Zwick and his writers, Charles Leavitt and some uncredited others -- plus a top-flight technical crew (including the superb cinematographer Eduardo Serra of "Girl with a Pearl Earring") -- keep the action both appalling and terribly convincing. This is Zwick's most powerful and accomplished film since 1989's "Glory." Only at the end -- when "Diamond" goes minutes past its natural, romantic climax -- does the message get too heavy.
Whether you decide to buy conflict diamonds or not -- and relatively few of us have that option -- this movie still grips, wrenches and excites. It's that rarity: a really thrilling thriller with something deeper on its mind as well.
Directed by Edward Zwick; written by Charles Leavitt; photographed by Eduardo Serra; edited by Steven Rosenblum; production designed by Dan Weil; music by James Newton Howard; produced by Zwick, Gillian Gorfil, Marshall Herskovitz, Graham King and Paula Weinstein. A Warner Bros. release. Running time: 2:18. MPAA rating: R (violence and some language).
Danny Archer -- Leonardo DiCaprio
Maddy Bowen -- Jennifer Connelly
Solomon Vandy -- Djimon Hounsou
Simmons -- Michael Sheen
Captain Poison -- David Harewood
The Colonel -- Arnold VoslooCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times