A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 138 mins.
Danny Archer: Leonardo DiCaprio / Solomon Vandy: Djimon Hounsou
/ Maddy Bowen: Jennifer Connelly / The Colonel: Arnold Vosloo
/ Dia: Kagiso Kuypers / Captain Poison: David Harewood Directed by Edward Zwick / Written by Charles Leavitt and C.
Danny Archer: Leonardo DiCaprio / Solomon Vandy: Djimon Hounsou / Maddy Bowen: Jennifer Connelly / The Colonel: Arnold Vosloo / Dia: Kagiso Kuypers / Captain Poison: David Harewood
Directed by Edward Zwick / Written by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell
BLOOD DIAMOND is yet another one of those politically charged and socially relevant films with a heartbeat and conscience that director Edward Zwick seems to make so effortlessly. He is also able to direct films that breathe with big picture issues alongside more mainstream sensibilities. Just consider his resume, which in itself reveals a depth and variety that most filmmakers only aspire to attain. All of his films, on some levels, are as challenging as they are entertaining.
He made ABOUT LAST NIGHT, a film that honed in on the mating and dating rituals of young adults in mid-1980's Chicago. He followed that up with arguably his greatest film, GLORY, which chronicled one of the few black battalions that fought for the Union during the US Civil War. LEGENDS OF THE FALL was a sweeping romance set against the backdrop of World War I. COURAGE UNDER FIRE dealt with one marine investigator probing the relevancy of the military posthumously awarding a woman the Medal of Honor for her work in the call of duty. THE SIEGE, predating the events of 9/11, focused on the consequences of a military lockdown of civilian life in New York after a terrorist attack. His most recent effort, THE LAST SAMURAI (one of the finest films of 2004) focused on how old Japanese cultures became the target of the advancing technological advancement and encroachment of modern cultures. The great thing about Zwick’s films is that they are both entertaining as well as being deeply personal about their subject matters. All of his films, deep down, have something significant to say.
BLOOD DIAMOND is no different from his fairly spotless list of works from the past. It also effortlessly balances more conventional filmmaking trappings with noble minded and highly topical concerns. In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, BLOOD DIAMOND could have been relentlessly preachy, overbearing, and too adrenaline charged and heavy on wall-to-wall action. Zwick, a director of impeccable tact, knows instinctively how to find a nice equilibrium in BLOOD DIAMOND between being an earnest and thoughtful commentary piece with a daring, rousing, and classic adventure/action picture.
Most importantly, BLOOD DIAMOND is about greed and obsession. It is the kind of film that John Huston would have made. Watching it I was reminded of gritty films like THE TREASURE ON THE SIERRA MADRE where amoral characters are driven by their own deeply rooted impulses and passions to attain limitless wealth and riches. Both films work by detailing how humanity seems to have a never-ending knack for being gluttonous and nefarious. Not only that, but both films work as intelligent and introspective popcorn flicks, which is really tricky to pull of with the right level of panache and skill.
Beyond its story, message, and payoffs, BLOOD DIAMOND once again highlights Leonardo DiCaprio at the peak of his abilities. Is their a better actor working today? A strong case could be made for no. DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, who successfully pays off on so many levels. In one sense, he’s the classic, rugged, put up or shut up type of tough guy anti-hero that Humphrey Bogart played in films like CASABLANCA and THE TREASURE ON THE SIERRA MADRE. Archer is a rigid and selfish idealist that only thinks for himself first and all others a distant second.
The genius of his character is in his arc, which sees him go from laconic solider of fortune to a freedom fighter that starts to give a damn. It’s a classic character right out of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and in DiCaprio’s hands, he churns out another masterful performance where he completely immerses himself in the character. He’s a real chameleon and his work in BLOOD DIAMOND continues his remarkably strong course of consistently Oscar caliber turns which started with GANGS OF NEW YORK in 2002, THE AVIATOR from 2004, and his equally strong performance in this year’s THE DEPARTED. In the latter mentioned film and in Zwick’s, you’ll be hard pressed to find two better performances in 2006. For an actor that once was given far too much recognition as a pretty boy face that was worshipped at teenage girl alters, it's amazing to see how DiCaprio – like the Robert DeNiro’s and Al Pacino’s before him – has matured and aged to play street wise, rough, and world weary characters as good as anyone.
The film is a somewhat contemporary period piece set in the blood drenched, poverty and disease- ridden Sierra Leone of the late 1990’s. During this time the lands were dominated by self-professed freedom fighters that specialized in fighting less for liberties than engaging in wanton cruelty and malicious acts of sociopathic violence. The atrocities they commit are almost unspeakably cruel. They storm into one village after another, rape and kill the women, sadistically torture the meeker men and – in the most heartbreaking and vile atrocities of all – they “recruit” boys barely in their teens to join their revolution.
Brain washing them would be a more apt descriptor. They instill in the boys to become killing machines with AK-47’s by threatening them, making them become addicted to heroin, and essentially making them forget all past ties. This is the real demoralizing and depressing center of the film. The fact that these monsters are so easily able to make good children into beasts is shocking. Seeing kids that have barely made it into puberty join their revolutionary brothers in their slaughters in villages is disgusting, to say the least. Thankfully and appropriately, Zwick does not sugarcoat this material.
The leader of these rebel troops is a real heartless madman named Captain Poison (played by David Harewood in a performance that invites genuine scares; he’s an undeniable monster). He’s one of those sadists that waves his gun around, drinks beer, rides into villages with his troops and hip hop music blaring away, and has a cheerful penchant for chopping off his victims' hands and/or heads. Shooting a person at point blank range with little warning also makes him giddy. He lives for the massacre of innocent lives. However, during one particularly nasty raid he spares the life of one Mende fisherman so he can be his slave.
Solomon Vandy is this Mende man, played in another of the film’s most powerful performances by Djimon Hounsou, an actor whose enunciation and fiery passion is oftentimes mesmerizing. Solomon is a simple, modest man who only wants a simple life for his wife and son, Dia. Dia is a smart kid with a very bright future. However, disaster strikes when Poison and his posse storm his village and capture Solomon and decide to use him for his purposes. Poison has other dastardly plans for Solomon's son, whom he later decides to personally oversee his transformation into a young killing machine. While Dia is taken under Poison’s tutelage, Solomon is sent to work as a digger and miner of rare and precious diamonds, which can then be sold to legitimate diamond buyers who don’t seem to give a hoot about where there come from. If anything, this film begs you to ask a lot more questions at the retail store the next time you wish to purchase a ring for that significant other.
Riding in on the highly lucrative market of smuggling and selling of these “blood diamonds” is David Archer. Obviously, the work that goes into finding these notorious diamonds has uprooted and destroyed thousands of lives. At first, Archer simply does not care. As long as he gets his cut, everything is fine. He’s an unethical mercenary that only sees dollar signs and cares very little about the country that funds his living. His story eventually touches Solomon’s. One day Solomon discovers a brilliant and priceless 100-karet pink diamond which he hides before he is captured and arrested in a government raid. Archer discovers this and sees Solomon and his diamond as his big ticket out of Africa forever.
He bails him out of jail and makes a deal with him: he will help him find the whereabouts of his wife and kids and, in return, Solomon will help him find the diamond. Archer, however, needs more than just Solomon's aid, so he enlists in the assistance of a pretty American reporter named Maddy Brown (Jennifer Connelly). Maddy has a different agenda in Sierra Leone. She wants to expose to the world the dreadful truth about the global diamond trade, which initially conflicts with Archer’s aims. Yet, he soon realizes that he must make a deal with her as well. In exchange for her aid, he will give her a tell-all expose of the truth behind the bloody diamond trade and how well-known diamond merchants from London are – arguably – the biggest crooks of all.
Like all other great, epic wartime dramas, BLOOD DIAMOND has more than its fair share of spectacular action set pieces. Some of the film’s opening scenes are stunning in their brutality and a later city siege is breathtakingly realized. Zwick, who has a great eye for historical detail, is able to film BLOOD DIAMOND and all of its locales with the verisimilitude of a documentary. Some of the film's images and vistas are extraordinary, especially in one astounding reveal of a detainment camp that is home to “millions.” Like other similar, socially topical films with real world locales (like THE CONSTANT GARDENER), BLOOD DIAMOND creates an eerie and resonating sense of urban chaos and decay, not to mention shedding light on the dilapidated living conditions of those that are forced to live under the constant threat of rebel uprisings. BLOOD DIAMOND, as a sad visual essay of suffering, is an unqualified triumph.
The film is also noteworthy for how uncompromising it is at presenting the downright devastation that grips the innocent people of Sierra Leone. The real tearful elements of the film is in how some people turn a blind eye to the needless slaughter of human lives that occurs in the pursuit of wealth. Even more disturbing is how the film details the way the youth of the region are turned into mindless zombies that spout out rebel virtues at the end of machine gun barrels. The arc of Solomon and his son’s transformation is truly sad, and to see Solomon's emotional breakdown at the thought (and later, sight) of his son’s dissention into hell is gripping and difficult to watch. For a film that spends a great deal of its time targeting unscrupulous diamond marketers and smuggling, the fact that BLOOD DIAMOND still has time to show the seduction of children in spite of this cause is revealing.
The performances, as stated, scream out for Academy recognition. DiCaprio’s transformation is remarkable and he flawlessly inhabits his Zimbabwe character (his accent never misses a beat and is neither overbearing nor non-existence). The other amazing performance is from Djimon Hounsou, who has been stuck too often in past films playing noble-minded servants or sidekicks (ala GLADIATOR, THE FOUR FEATHERS, and CONSTANTINE). Yet, he demonstrates here what a striking and powerful screen presence he is capable of being. His work here is soulful and magnetic. Jennifer Connelly also does well with her tricky role of the reporter who not only has disdain for Archer’s methods and ideology, but also could be a romantic interest for him (all wartime melodramas must have a love interest). However, Archer and Maddy’s love is not immediately mutual and develops slowly and patiently – more or less – because it helps take them away from Africa’s hardships. Overall, their relationship is the one element the works the least successfully in the film. She is a bit more of a plot contrivance than an interesting persona, but her role works towards the overall effect of the film.
Edward Zwick’s BLOOD DIAMOND is many things; it’s a stirring and rousing wartime/action spectacle that also happens to frame its awesome and powerful sights with a narrative that deals with penetrating and weighty issues. The film chronicles the corruption and disturbing greed that populates the world diamond markets and how the smuggling and buying of Africa’s “blood” diamonds comes at the expense of a horrendous amount of human misery. The film is completely nerve-wracking for how it unsettles the viewer as a first hand eyewitnesses to the war torn lands of Sierra Leone and how innocent lives are destroyed at the risk of merchants and mercenaries making a buck. BLOOD DIAMOND is a viciously passionate and ambitious film with immaculate direction, thought-provoking themes, and performances by Djimon Hounsou and Leonardo DiCaprio that are beyond first rate. The film is exciting, adventurous, entertaining, and introspective and it marries big Hollywood blockbuster aesthetics with considerate intentions. It’s an old school, Golden Age adventure yarn with New Age lamentation on social ills. Because of this, BLOOD DIAMOND is an exemplary mounted entertainment.