Contrary to many who found Edward Zwick’s latest politically informed mega-production too snared in its own good intentions, I found Blood Diamond’s heart-on-its-sleeve moralism and diligent righteousness but a mildly intrusive backdrop to what is an old-fashioned adventure-romance. Leonardo DiCaprio impresses once again as Danny Archer, a cutthroat soldier of fortune from Zimbabwe, now plying his trade in Sierra Leone as a diamond smuggler. Set during the harrowing civil wars that seared through western Africa in the late 1990s, the picture’s players and premise are motivated entirely by the illegal diamond trade running rampant during that time.
DiCaprio’s Archer is an operative in the service of an army official who, in a practice common to the conflict’s corrupt leaders, is involved in the black market trading of illegally extracted diamonds for military arms. After a cache of black-market diamonds he’s attempting to smuggle across the border is confiscated, Archer’s left to scramble for another way to recover the fortune those diamonds would’ve reaped, before his bosses find and kill him. He chances on Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), a villager separated by the war from his family and who’s vowed to recover his son from the clutches of the mafia-like, anti-government militants. Archer learns that Solomon’s got the goods on a massive diamond, one he’s stashed away in a secret location near a rebel encampment, and finesses his way into Solomon’s good graces, offering to help him to find his son in exchange for the diamond. Complicating matters for Archer, though, is the gung-ho and gorgeous Maddy Bowen (Connelly), a journalist researching an article about the practice of black-market diamond smuggling used to fuel the civil war. Maddy and Archer have an instant and volatile sexual chemistry, and they exploit it to get what they want from the other. Archer agrees to proffer information vital to Maddy’s article if she’ll, in turn, help Vandy find his son. Archer’s deal, of course, is motivated by his all-consuming desire to find the hidden diamond. The push-pull polarities set up in Leavitt’s script between Archer and Maddy, and Archer and Solomon ably drive Blood Diamond’s narrative engines across the strife-torn Sierra Leone landscape.
For all of Blood Diamond’s grand scale and insistent political correctness, neither Leavitt’s script nor Zwick’s direction overplay their hand. They shrewdly stick to the immediate variables of their story, giving us glimpses into the netherworld of Sierra Leone’s civil war only when called upon by narrative necessity. This is not to say that they exploit the grimness and suffering of Africa’s misfortunes for the sake of a bloody good yarn. Rather, by affording it a place just behind the action, informing it without engulfing it, Blood Diamond packs an emotional wallop; in a storytelling strategy rare for this director, we don’t find ourselves laden with didactic demands, but, instead, swept up in an exciting narrative, free to process its moral equations on our own. In DiCaprio’s Archer, we find a psychologically scarred, morally ambiguous anti-hero after the classic Hemingway mold; Archer’s a through-and-through professional, incited by people and events to rediscover his long-compromised values. Indeed, if you’re familiar enough with the tone and tropes of Hemingway’s fiction, it’s impossible not to be reminded of them as we follow Archer’s transformation. In DiCaprio’s sensational performance and in Zwick’s committed storytelling, we find an exhilarating — if unintentional — tribute to that American master of the existential wartime action-romance.
Directed by: Edward Zwick
Written by: Charles Leavitt
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo, Antony Coleman, Benu Mabhena, David Harewood, Jimi Mistry, Michael Sheen, Stephen Collins