Thursday, March 22, 2007

Blood Diamond

Director: Edward Zwick
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly, David Harewood, Kagiso Kuypers, Arnold Vosloo
Running Time: 144 min.
Rating: R

***1/2 (out of ****)

If you've seen the commercials and trailers for Blood Diamond you may be led to believe the movie is a political drama with a very heavy-handed message. Imagine my surprise then when the film turns out to be more like a gruesomely violent version of an Indiana Jones film set against the backdrop of beautiful scenery and astonishing performances. More than that though, it's a deep human drama that intelligently explores serious moral choices and consequences.

It tells a story about "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" as they are better known that are mined in war zones and sold to major diamond companies to finance their rebellions. But that's not what the film is really about. It's about three strangers brought together by horrible circumstances who are using one another and how they must reconcile that. At times the film is difficult to watch because of it's brutality and violence (especially toward children) but director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) deserves credit for not sugar coating anything and letting us witness the horror exactly as it happened in Sierra Leone in the late 90's.

When I recapped the Oscar telecast last month I said that just based on the thirty-second clip they showed of Djimon Hounsou as one of the nominees for Best Supporting Actor it looked like he deserved to win. That was only thirty seconds, but now after watching the nearly two and a half hour Blood Diamond I'm convinced I was right. What he does in this film isn't just "acting." He literally transforms himself and commands our attention with unbelievable emotion and power. That's not to say his co-stars are phoning it in because everyone is impressive across the board, but Hounsou in particular is amazing.

The year is 1999 and Sierra Leone is in the midst of a civil war that's ripping the country apart. Solemon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is a Vende fisherman captured by the Revolutionary United Front (R.U.F.) rebels and separated from his family. He's forced to work for a sadistic soldier known as Captain Poison (a scary David Harewood) in the diamond fields, where he finds and hides a rare pink diamond. Before Poison can get his hands on it they're attacked and the prized stone remains hidden, with only Solemon aware of it's location.

Enter Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sleazy diamond smuggler from Zimbabwe who hears about the rare stone in prison and offers Solemon a deal: take me to the diamond and I'll get your family back. It sounds like a great plan, but there's one huge problem. Solemon's son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) has been kidnapped by the R.U.F. and is being trained and brainwashed to be a cold blooded killer. To say this portion of the story is emotionally unsettling and difficult to watch would be a huge understatment and it's the aspect of the film that by far resonates the strongest. That's saying something too, because everything in this film resonates pretty strong.

Along for the ride as well is Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connnelly), a beautiful American journalist who encounters Danny at a bar and sees him as her big chance to expose the blood diamond scandal. She's using him as much as Danny's using Solemon and I love the way the characters are aware of this and even point it out to one another. Their knowledge, however, does nothing to change their behavior. Danny's not giving into Maddy without a fight but that becomes increasingly difficult as the two grow closer.

Three incredibly different individuals with three vastly different agendas are headed on a violent and dangerous journey to find the diamond further complicated by the fact that the clock is ticking on Danny's life if he doesn't get it. He wronged his mentor, a South African mercenary named Colonel Coatzee (Arnold Vosloo) on a deal and now he's breathing down his neck for the pink diamond. If it sounds like I've given too much away, don't worry I haven't.

The plot isn't so much complicated as it is deep and requires the viewer to pay close attention to every character's motives and how they manifest themselves in the context of the story. There are plenty of surprises and in a movie like this you know it's virtually impossible for everyone to come out alive. How the screenplay handles this and other issues such as the relationship between Solemon and his brainwashed son (which at one crucial scene in the movie recalls the father/son face off in Return of the Jedi) and the emerging relationship between Danny and Maddy is ingenious at times.

You should be warned going into this that the violence is graphic, with villagers being shot and killed in nearly every scene of the movie. Particularly gruesome is the first ten minutes where we witness the raid on Vandy's village with rebels literally axing people's hands off so they can't vote in upcoming elections. Zwick doesn't pull any punches and the result is a powerful motion picture that never sermonizes, just tells an involving and moving story from beginning to end.

There's been a lot of talk as to whether DiCaprio got nominated for the wrong film in 2006 and he should have picked up his Best Actor Oscar nod for The Departed instead of this. I can definitely see their point, but I don't think after seeing this film anyone could argue his work here was undeserving of its nomination. There have also been some complaints about his South African accent in the film, but I thought he pulled it off credibly. There was never a point during the picture where I was distracted by it or felt it took me out of what was happening in any way. Some people forget just how difficult it is to pull off any kind of foreign accent and he deserves praise for his effort. Between this and The Departed, 2006 will go down as a breakthrough year for him. Of course, it's rare any actor gets a chance to play two characters that complex and well written within one calendar year.

I've you've read any of the other reviews for this film, you may notice Jennifer Connelly's character described as "the love interest" for Danny in the film. That's not true. Writer Charles Leavitt is too clever to fall into that trap and realizes it has no place in a movie like this. I really liked the way they handled this because the relationship is treated as being important to the story (which it is) but it never crosses the line into where it becomes an unnecessary distraction. Because the character of Maddy is being played by the criminally underrated Connelly, in just a few scenes she brings a whole range of depth and intelligence to a role that in the hands of any other actress would probably seem shallow and insignificant.

It also helps that for obvious reasons you can't take your eyes off her every time she's onscreen. Does she look "too good" to be a reporter? No, I don't think so. If there are ugly reporters, why can't there be really good looking ones? If we didn't cast actresses in certain roles because they looked too good, Connelly wouldn't be a working actress. She's been fighting and winning that battle for the past twenty years, proving with her talent that she's earned every role she's had. The scene where she first meets DiCaprio's character is fantastic as the two play off each other so well that you hardly even notice important exposition is being slid in. She disappears for a good portion of the movie but her absence makes sense. She's done what she can do and there's no need for her to stick around.

Blood Diamond isn't a perfect movie, but it comes pretty close. It's only problem (and this is a minor quibble) is that Zwick isn't the kind of director that brings a particularly unique style to his pictures. You're not likely to see a film and know he directed it. That's okay though because his movies are always beautifully shot and consistently entertain. In fact, this may be his best. I'm just curious what another director would have done with this material. I don't think anyone would have necessarily done a better job per se, but they may have brought more interesting elements to the proceedings.

At times the film is so action packed it almost feels like a very highbrow Jerry Bruckheimer production. I probably would have ended the movie a scene earlier but I understand Zwick's need to include the final scene, even if it is a bit political, as it does accomplish its goal tying everything up. Blood Diamond is one of those increasingly rare motion pictures that's full of excitement, but also leaves you thinking about an important issue that many, myself included, wouldn't have considered before seeing the film. Will people now think twice before buying diamonds? Probably not, but one of the most refreshing things about this film was that it wasn't made to lecture us about it.

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