During the civil war in Sierra Leone, fisherman Solomon (Hounsou) is forced to pan for diamonds. He finds a large one, but it soon draws the attention of mercenary Danny Archer (DiCaprio) among others
Violence is an overused word. Primarily we associate it with fantasy, either in the gory netherworlds of the Hostel or Saw movies or the escapist universe of Bond and Bourne, where tension and excitement overshadow the realities of torture, mutilation and death. Violence, for the most part, is about the human capacity to hurt others; and about the way it destroys lives, communities and countries.
So when you hear that Blood Diamond is a very violent movie, don’t take it lightly. This isn’t simply about gunfights and car chases (although both are present and very much correct); Edward Zwick’s film launches with scenes that startle with their savagery, rivalling even Saving Private Ryan’s opening salvo for squirm value. As Sierra Leone’s anti-government warriors spread across the country, villages are razed, women raped and their children shot or abducted. To ensure voter apathy at the upcoming elections, hands are severed with axes and machetes.
It’s against this hellish backdrop that we first meet Solomon (Djimon Hounsou), a family man whose dreams of medical school for his son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) are dashed by the guerrilla insurgency. While Solomon is spared to pan for diamonds at gunpoint, Dia is taken, brainwashed, given a new identity and a gun. This, we soon learn, is what Sierra Leone is up against: beer-swilling bandits who bankroll their fight with smuggled diamonds and spend their gains on, disturbingly, US gangsta rap.
Solomon’s camp is raided and the inhabitants jailed, which is where Leonardo DiCaprio’s Danny Archer comes in; a sharp-witted player whose eyes widen as he learns of Solomon’s million-dollar find. Though there are similarities with the protean trickster of Catch Me If You Can, this is a Leo we’ve never seen before. Amoral and selfish but self-aware, DiCaprio expands on the reservoirs of darkness that Scorsese found in him. In the film’s final straits, when the diamond becomes his Shangri-La, his power and conviction are something to see.
But Blood Diamond falls maddeningly short of greatness in its final hour, partly because of an abundance of subplots. Alongside Solomon and Archer, Zwick introduces journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a hard-nosed war reporter just in from Afghanistan, who looks to Archer to help her find the white-collar criminals in the diamond trade. Though her acting is faultless, Connelly’s presence leads to a romance that, however understated, simply stores up trouble for later, requiring redemption and emotional closure on an already overheated climax. On top of that, add an unnecessary political framing device, and what begins as a tough, risk-taking thriller winds down to become a familiar Hollywood triumph-over-adversity story. It’s a heartbreaker. After feeling so much danger, it’s a shame to leave the cinema on a note so safe.
Great performances, provocative ideas and gripping action scenes fall prey to Hollywood logic and pat storytelling in the final hour.