Blood Diamond Review
Before it goes very, very wrong half way through, Edward Zwick's African adventure Blood Diamond promises to be one hell of a good movie. Echoing Mel Gibsons' Apocalypto, it opens with an emotionally wrenching scene in which fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is dragged away from his family by rebel soldiers who raid his village, looking for recruits and slaves. Solomon is too old to be brainwashed into the cause so he's put to work panning for diamonds deep in the jungle, while his wife and daughters join the millions of displaced refugees and his young son is chosen to become a rebel soldier.
The place is Sierra Leone, the year 1999. The country is in the middle of a long and bloody civil war, which is being waged in part because it's so rich in diamonds. The demand for the stones from Europe and America keeps a corrupt government in power and inspires the brutal rebel army to commit worse and worse atrocities. The United Nations has banned "conflict diamonds" but the less scrupulous diamond companies have ways of getting around the rules.
Mercenaries like Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) are hired to smuggle the gems into neighbouring countries which can export them as their own. Danny is a Zimbabwe-born white African who works for a private army operating out of South Africa. Occasionally his job involves getting caught and arrested and it's while he's sitting in a Sierra Leone jail cell that he runs into Solomon Vandy.
Solomon was picked up in a government raid on the rebel camp where he was working. He comes to Danny's attention when a rebel soldier locked up in the same jail claims that, shortly before they were both captured, he saw Solomon bury a large, pink diamond - a blood diamond. Danny can tell from the description it must be worth millions and it could be his ticket to a comfortable life on another continent. Once Danny has been sprung from jail, he pulls strings to have Solomon released and he strikes a bargain with him. He'll help find his family in return for the diamond.
The first hour of Blood Diamond does a very fine job of combining action with message-making. Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai) specialises in boy's own adventures, often laced with a heartfelt political theme. Zwick handles the action scenes extremely well - the big rebel attack on Sierra Leone's capital is a stunning piece of direction, worthy of comparison with the climactic assault in Children Of Men. Within the boundaries of a mainstream action film, Zwick also communicates clearly and effectively why nations like Sierra Leone end up as war-zones and what this means for their unfortunate populations. The indoctrination of Solomon's son is unflinchingly depicted and horrifying to watch.
For once in a Hollywood film about Africa, we're given a black, African hero to sympathise with - and sympathise with him we do thanks to Djimon Hounsou's powerful, Oscar-nominated performance. Leonardo DiCaprio, also Oscar-nominated, is excellent too as the very anti-heroic Archer, getting the Afrikaaner accent and demeanour bang on. The two men make an interesting pair, each representing a separate side of the crisis: Danny the cause and Solomon its effects. Danny is allowed to make his case though. He has a good scene in which he mocks a liberal journalist whose pieces run in newspapers and magazines alongside ads for the diamond companies that pay him.
And then, half way through Blood Diamond, the movie goes wrong. It's almost like screenwriter Charles Leavitt (K-PAX) panics, realises he's writing an intelligent, provocative script and decides to dumb it down so as not to scare everyone. All of a sudden Solomon, very much the protagonist in the first hour, is sidelined while Danny takes centre stage, develops a conscience and begins a tentative romance with the very same liberal journalist he mocked. She's Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a crusading magazine writer who wants him to go on the record about the secret diamond pipeline.
During this long, talky interlude, Maddy lectures Danny about his part in the bloodshed and tells him to "do good", while Solomon is unforgivably reduced to sidekick status, his quest for his family treated as less important than Danny's change of heart and the all-star love story between DiCaprio and Connelly. As consolation, Solomon's given a running gag about pretending to be a cameraman and, as if this isn't enough, in some scenes he's just made to stand awkwardly in the background with nothing to do.
While Jennifer Connelly has been indispensible in many good films, her character is not needed here, certainly not as a romantic lead. There shouldn't be a Hollywood romance in Blood Diamond. There shouldn't have been one in Tears Of The Sun, another well-intentioned film about Africa that lost its way thanks to Hollywood's bizarre ideas about what audiences want to watch. Don't the film-makers think that having good-looking stars make eyes at each other against an exotic back-drop of war atrocities is just a tiny bit tasteless?
Why would anyone think the audience needs a love story in a film of this nature? Did anyone walk out of Black Hawk Down complaining that there wasn't enough romance? Speaking as an unadventurous multiplex filmgoer who holds conservative political views, I'm staggered that anyone could think I would be more interested in Maddy and Danny's relationship than in finding out whether Solomon can rescue his son.
It's not just the character of Solomon who suffers. Danny is turned into a sap in his scenes with Maddy. These scenes don't even make sense in relation to what comes before and after. It's not believable that this hard-boiled mercenary would be attracted to a sanctimonious journalist and bare his soul to her, nor is it understandable why, once she flies out, he turns back into a ruthless, hard-ass soldier of fortune again. DiCaprio does a damn good job but the film lets him down.
It's also a cop-out making Connelly's character the movie's moral conscience in the second half, especially after the thoughtful earlier scenes in which Danny dismissed her contribution. Maddy represents the concerned western liberals who breast-beat over Africa and congratulate themselves for it but (as Danny says) never accomplish very much. Blood Diamond dishonestly implies that crusading journalists like Maddy were responsible for ending the civil war. In fact it ended after 10 years of fighting when Sierra Leone's army, with British, Nigerian and Guinean assistance, finally defeated the rebels.
Blood Diamond does pick up in the last half hour, at least in terms of pace and action. It's still a shadow of that great first hour. Besides the credibility issues regarding Danny reverting to a cold-hearted mercenary, the film curiously turns certain characters into villains in the final reel with no real preparation. Before that, they're treated as neutral. It's as if the screenwriter decided he needed some bad guys for the climax and he chose some at random.
On balance, Blood Diamond isn't a bad film and it's worth seeing if you have two and a half hours to spare. The first hour really is cracking cinema, so good that it's a little painful to watch the later scenes let it down. This is a film that had a real chance for greatness and squandered it.