An ambitious film that can be viewed as either half empty or half full, “Blood Diamond” attempts something difficult and problematic. It can be pulled apart or appreciated, depending on your mood, but it should be recognized that movies like this have become as rare and potentially valuable as the stone that sets its plot in motion.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and a powerful Djimon Hounsou, and set amid the surreal chaos of an Africa in perpetual armed conflict, “Blood Diamond” attempts to be an action thriller with serious political overtones, to be as much position paper as “Zulu Dawn.”
Directed by Edward Zwick, who believes that “political awareness can be raised as much by entertainment as by rhetoric,” “Blood Diamond” attempts to marry the budget and the stars of major league Hollywood with a serious message about difficult un-Hollywood subjects like child soldiers, contraband diamonds and amputations as a tool of war. It is an awkward fit at times, but the attempt is more successful than might be imagined.
It’s a mark of the trickiness of the intertwined subjects of diamonds and the 1990s civil war in Sierra Leone that Charles Leavitt’s script tackles that “Blood Diamond” has gotten pre-release criticism from all sides of the political spectrum.
De Beers, the international diamond concern, has taken expensive pains to distance itself from the film’s scenario and its fictitious cartel Van Der Kaap. The trade arm of the government of South Africa, where the film was in part shot, has a stern on-screen disclaimer insisting it “does not accept any liability for the content and does not necessarily support such content.” And the makers of “The Empire in Africa,” a new documentary, claim Zwick and company have unnecessarily demonized the rebels who fought for control of the country.
Blood diamonds, sometimes known as conflict stones, were so named in the 1990s by advocacy groups wanting to call attention to the fact that diamonds were being smuggled out of countries at war specifically to buy more arms and kill more people. This situation, the film emphasizes, “created millions of refugees who’ve never seen a diamond.”
One of those folks is Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), a humble Sierra Leone fisherman who wants his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) to be a doctor when he grows up. Those plans are put on hold when the country’s rebels attack and destroy Vandy’s village, turning his family into refugees and landing Solomon in a rebel-run diamond mine overseen by the appropriately named Captain Poison (David Harewood).
One day Vandy comes upon an enormous pinkish stone, as big as a bird’s egg. He manages to hide it before he is captured by government forces and ends up in a prison where his discovery comes to the attention of fellow detainee Danny Archer (DiCaprio). An amoral gunrunner and former mercenary from Zimbabwe, which he insists on calling by its old name of Rhodesia, Danny, like Poison and Vandy himself, wants the stone for its power to change lives.
The only character in the film who doesn’t want the diamond is Maddy Bowen (Connelly), an action junkie photojournalist who instead wants Archer’s help exposing the ins and outs of the conflict diamond business. She and the soldier of fortune begin one of those flinty and flirtatious movie relationships that is part antagonism, part attraction, all star power.
Given that so many want to lay hands on that stone, “Blood Diamond” contains a considerable amount of plot, smoothly and professionally moved along by director Zwick, who also handles the film’s numerous action scenes with a confident touch.
On the other hand, and with this film there is always another hand, when repeated coincidences and numerous hairsbreadth escapes are factored in, all that plotting can sometimes feel like too much of a good thing.
Also noteworthy is DiCaprio’s performance in the kind of good-bad guy roles Clark Gable used to knock off before breakfast. This is the new, mature Leo, first glimpsed in “The Departed,” and he throws himself into the part with such conviction and skill he makes us believe in his character more than we otherwise might. Despite these best efforts, however, there is not enough of Gable’s kind of traditional masculinity in the actor’s persona for his work to enlarge the picture as much as it should.
As for DiCaprio’s costars, Connelly has some potent speeches and once again proves her ability to hold the screen with major male players. And Hounsou, a native of Benin, factors in his obvious feeling for the continent and creates a passionate portrait of a man determined to find his family again.
Africa is also one of the stars of “Blood Diamond,” as cinematographer Eduardo Serra (“Girl With a Pearl Earring”), shooting in Mozambique and Sierra Leone as well as South Africa, convincingly puts the at times wrenching chaos of that continent on screen.
But if the scenes of the transformation of children into soldiers is harrowing stuff, “Blood Diamond” also has a weakness for the Hollywood emotional moment and convenient plot resolutions.
Finally, though, those weaker moments are overshadowed by the film’s willingness to risk disturbing an audience’s sense of the world and how it is run. “Blood Diamond” is very much aware that these are problems beyond easy and convenient resolution, and it is hard not to appreciate any film that understands that.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence and language. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. In general release.