Blood Diamond
Warner Bros. Pictures
Directed by Edward Zwick
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, and Jennifer Connelly
Rated R

The inverse of the dire Bobby, Blood Diamond proves that good intentions and passion really can transcend limited skill sets. And so director Edward Zwick — last employed stage managing Tom Cruise’s vanity in The Last Samurai — uses his workmanlike abilities to Blood Diamond‘s advantage, neutering any trace of the maudlin in his ’90s-set Africa horror story. Meanwhile, in the realm of the miraculous, screenwriter Charles Leavitt, he of the ludicrous sci-fi bonbon K-PAX, delivers a script bereft of self-righteousness and big on the forward narrative and humane insight. Really, it’s like the atrocities infecting modern Africa, whether the microcosm of the diamond trade referenced in the film’s title and the neo-imperialist opportunism of which such crimes are a symptom, were constantly nipping at their heels, provoking both to avoid the usual gaffes of the “issue film.” It’s not a truly great movie, but perhaps more importantly, it’s essential.

Smartly avoiding the passive racist trope most recently seen in The Last King of Scotland — showing a black nation’s troubles from the POV of privileged white folks — this nominal Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle instead opens with the everyday nightmare suffered by Solomon (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman in civil war-torn Sierra Leone.

Before he has time to cook up his latest catch, Solomon’s village is destroyed and his son stolen by rebel soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front, who will brainwash him into being a child soldier. What we see of this massacre is horrid and should be: children and women are gleefully mowed down, while many who live have their arms chopped off. Solomon ends up in a diamond mining camp, whose product, via assorted middlemen, ends up mixed with rocks of less despicable lineage on the Western market. After finding the titular fist-sized gem, he hides it just in time for government soldiers to take over the operation and, assuming him to be RUF, throw him in jail.

Enter DiCaprio’s character, a Zimbabwe-born mercenary soldier, diamond runner, asshole, and ultimately tragic loner named Danny Archer. Hearing the tale of the rock, he frees Solomon, and the resulting search for the diamond defines both men.

For Solomon, it will buy his son’s freedom and an education. For Danny, it’s his ticket out of Africa. Meanwhile, a turmoil-addicted journalist named Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) hopes either man will provide a terminal angle on the “conflict diamond” trade.

What most effectively rids the film of message-picture preachiness is a hard, saccharine-free tone that, mixed with the characters’ gallows banter, positions the film as a sort of worst-case scenario African neo-noir, complete with multiple characters fatalistically repeating a death’s-door tagline, “T.I.A.”—”this is Africa” — the film’s “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”

What finally rescues Blood from absolute despair are some satisfying just desserts and Danny’s slow stumble to grace: this, not The Departed, is the film where DiCaprio, with his fine-tooled journey from jerk cynic to mensch, graduates to the thespian big leagues. And, aptly for a film operating in a reality featuring the Darfur genocides, the film ends on a question mark.

On the auteur downside, Zwick’s frequent slaughter scenes are effectively horrific, but his brisk journeyman style lacks the dark poetry of mass suffering, the flow from wide-angle horror to up-close consequences. A scene where we see an “entire nation” of the dispossessed in a massive refugee camp cries out for John Ford-like sweep, but all Zwick summons is a single long shot.

But the film really, appropriately, belongs to Hounsou. A lean, beautiful man, what’s most striking about him are his smallish, darkly luminous eyes. Despite the frequent need to fake submissiveness, there’s a coiled snake of rage lurking there. When he finally snaps at sight of his son’s abductor, it’s his eyes as much as his ripped larynx that scream pain and outrage. If the Oscars had anything to do with merit, Hounsou would be a shoo-in. Even better would be the film finding the vast audience it deserves.

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