There are plenty of reasons to dislike Blood Diamond -- it's over-long, over-earnest, and over-hyped, just for starters. But Blood Diamond is handsomely made; it features at least one interesting performance; it is actually trying to be about something. In an end-of-year film season crammed with pious nonsense like The Pursuit of Happyness and insane vanity projects like Rocky Balboa, that's enough to reveal it as, well, something like a diamond -- multifaceted, rough and all the more brilliant viewed against its contrasting background. And, of course, like a diamond, it has no real value beyond what the viewer is willing to ascribe to it.
Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai), Blood Diamond takes place in civil-war torn Sierra Leone. A fisherman, Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) wants the simple things -- peace, order, a better life for his son. He's not going to get them. Rebel forces tear through the village -- killing many, mutilating some and pressing others into service as diamond miners. This is Solomon's fate, although he's soon rescued and taken to jail. Sierra Leone's rebels finance their attacks on the government through selling diamonds; the jewelry industry doesn't want to have a potential customer ready to punk down the recommended three month's salary turned off by the ugly political realities of Sierra Leone -- crimson blood clashes with wedding white -- so most of Sierra Leone's diamonds are smuggled into neighboring Liberia; this is where Rhodesian-born, South African-bred smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes in.
Danny's an amoral hustler, and after his last scam's gone awry he's in jail -- where he hears a man accuse Solomon of hiding a huge rough pink diamond. This is what Solomon has, in fact, done, which makes him the guy with the whatsit -- Danny wants the diamond, the rebels want the diamond, everyone wants the diamond. And since only Solomon knows where it is, he's a valuable guy to know. The fact is that Blood Diamond would have been a better movie (and a lot less profitable, probably) if it had been a lot more cynical. This isn't to suggest that Danny and Solomon meet, hold hands and skip through a flower-strewn meadow to pick up the diamond. Danny and Solomon pretty much hate each other. But Solomon needs Danny, and Danny knows it: "I know people. White people." Blood Diamond's also not shy about showing the bloodshed and anguish of Sierra Leone - the film includes some of the best depictions of modern urban warfare we've seen in a long time. Zwick also doesn't skimp on depicting one of Africa's greatest shames (and one of the so-called developed world's greatest shames, in that so little has been done to stop it) -- the use of children as warriors, through the abduction and forced recruitment of Solomon's son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) -- with the kind of realism that audiences will, and should, find hard to take.
But that bitter medicine is smoothed along by the presence of Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American magazine journalist who is on the trail of the story behind 'conflict diamonds' for a story. Danny and Maddy don't get along when they meet -- their initial dialogue, beginning with Danny's question, pings across a variety of boundaries: "American?" "Guilty." "Americans usually are." "Says the White South African." But Maddy's journalism credentials are key to getting Danny and Solomon into the free-fire zone where the diamond's still held. ...
Without ruining the film's ending, let me say that I would have been much happier if the finale had been modeled on, say, Frank Norris's McTeague instead of Al Pacino's Scent of a Woman. But there are more than a few things in Blood Diamond to admire, despite it's NPR-humanism leaving the taste of granola in your mouth. Mostly, it's in how Charles Leavitt's script and DiCaprio's performance aren't afraid to show us how completely amoral (or, more precisely, driven by expediency) Danny is. Danny will lie; Danny will cajole; Danny will kill, and he will do all these things without a second thought.
Of course, Danny becomes more likable during the film; like most modern protagonists, it seems that Danny can dodge bullets, but not his own sense of self-loathing. It also might have been interesting if Hounsou had something even vaguely close to complexity in his character, as well. As for Connelly, she's a convenient and charming place for exposition to issue from -- never more clumsily than when she's explaining diamond smuggling to Danny, who is, of course, a diamond smuggler, and might be aware of the ins and outs of his own career.
But again, something in Blood Diamond kept me engaged -- DiCaprio's performance, Zwick's direction, Leavitt's screenplay's frantic attempts to actually be about something, even if that means a feel-good finale and a series of informative title cards at the end of the movie that feel unending. Maybe I'm just glad for what Blood Diamond isn't: It isn't about some far-flung future or long-past era, but takes place in something like the here-and-now; it isn't shy about talking about what our luxuries truly cost in other parts of the world; it isn't just a numbing series of action set-pieces tumbling over themselves in an effort to engage our jaded sensibilities. Blood Diamond is flawed and a little rough around the edges, but something about it -- glimmers, like light off a diamond -- caught my eye and stuck with me.