It’s 1999 in Sierra Leone, and the country is wracked by civil war. The forces of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are meeting with some success in their attempts to overthrow the government, driving the opposing forces back and killing and raping their way towards Freetown, the capitol. Those they don’t kill or maim outright are forced to work in the RUF’s diamond mines. Diamonds are traded for weapons from unscrupulous dealers, and then smuggled across the border into Liberia, where they are sent to brokers who sell them worldwide. It’s the only way to guarantee blushing brides and hip-hop artists across the globe will have access to the glittering baubles they so desperately require.
Politics matter little to Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who merely wants to mend his fishing nets and send his son Dia to school so he can become a doctor. These humble plans are thrown into disarray when the RUF show up in his village, kidnapping Dia (to train him as a soldier) and pressing Solomon into service in the mines. It’s during this forced servitude that Solomon discovers a monster diamond, which he successfully hides during a raid by government forces that ends with him and most of the others thrown into a Freetown jail.
While there, Solomon catches the attention of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the aforementioned unscrupulous types, who was captured at the Liberian border trying to smuggle some ill-gotten stones. Danny overhears the mine’s commandant grilling Solomon about the diamond and, once he himself gets out, arranges for Solomon’s release. Solomon immediately starts searching for his family, who have joined the swelling masses of refugees, while Danny tries to convince him the best way to save his family is to help him find the diamond, which he needs to cover the loss of his shipment.
“Blood Diamond” tries to combine social conscience with big budget action and doesn’t entirely succeed at either. The action is exciting at times, but plays mostly on the periphery as Danny and Solomon make their journey, only coming to the fore at the film’s climax. As for the message that “conflict diamonds are bad,” let me just say that it’s nothing short of hilarious that Warner Brothers, the company behind such enlightening entertainment as “Friday Night Smackdown” and “America’s Top Model,” is distributing a movie that calls Western media on the carpet for ignoring the plight of African refugees in favor of sports and reality programming.
It’s almost as hilarious as the idea that knowing where diamonds come will make a difference to the majority of Americans, who get 90% of their consumer goods and clothing from slave labor in China and Southeast Asia anyway.
Having said that, “Blood Diamond” might have been more successful had it focused more on the politics and intrigue and less on having a requisite car chase and a boffo finish. Director Edward Zwick, to his credit, nicely juxtaposes the stunning beauty of the African continent with the squalor and violence with which many of its inhabitants are forced to contend. Danny’s story is given the most attention, and we learn of his background in colonial Rhodesia and fighting as a mercenary in the civil wars, and DiCaprio supplies his second fine performance of the year, though his accent leave something to be desired (“Lethal Weapon 2’s” Joss Ackland sounded like P.W. Botha by comparison). As for Solomon, most of what takes place with his family is fairly predictable, right down to the confrontation with his the new and improved Dia. Then again, nobody howls with haunted rage like Hounsou. Just once, I’d like someone to cast him as a venal yuppie or mincing fashion designer. Put him in touch with Stanley Tucci’s agent.
Jennifer Connelly also shows up as American reporter Maddy Bowen, who agrees to help Danny and Solomon in escape for Danny giving her the dirt on his past connections with the Van De Kaap diamond company. Their inevitable romance isn’t given too much screen time, thank Christ, and Maddy’s role is mostly limited to forcing Danny to grow something resembling a conscience. Funny, she can live with his sketchy professional choices, yet it’s his outlook on humanity that initially turns her off.
“Blood Diamond” isn’t going to have the kind of lasting effect I suspect Zwick and company are hoping for. It’s a reasonably entertaining actioner, and Zwick doesn’t shy away from depicting violence or the horrors of war, but as a social statement it falls a little short.
And emeralds are prettier anyway.