Blood Diamond is the feel-bad epic that director Edward Zwick has been prepping for his entire career. The logline: Africa, unglued. We are dropped into Sierra Leone, sometime in the late 90s, near the tail-end of a decade-long civil war. The situation is bad enough that a rabble of child soldiers with names like "Baby Killer" and "Commander Rambo" can march with impunity down streets that are unlit except for the hazy orange glow of a few burning cars. Various factions are engaged in a hut-to-hut struggle for power, and the screen bounces from one horrifying image to another. We see a toddler being needled with heroin and told "It will make the bullets bounce off of you." We see a beachside nightclub up and running one minute, only to become captured ground the next minute. We see brigands and warlords patrolling the roads in expensive but smashed-up vehicles, looking for other vehicles that can be roadblocked and robbed. We see ... Jennifer Connelly? Talk about a diamond in the rough.
Connelly is a fine specimen of that sentimental movie creation -- the do-gooder journalist -- who hangs around sipping beers in Western-friendly cafes and seems to have no real plan at all until she happens upon Leonardo DiCaprio, a white Zimbabwean who addresses everyone as "broo" and "my man" and makes his living helping an international diamond cartel swindle the "blecks" out of the conflict diamonds that abound in the region. He has a number of minor tricks, including false teeth for smuggling diamonds and the ability to speak a bizarre form of pidgin English to the local shopkeepers that sounds exactly like something you'd hear in a Star Wars film. Connelly quickly goes to work on the emotional center she senses in him. "Good things are done every day. Just not by you," she tells him with a smile. DiCaprio and Connelly are both pushy, in-your-face actors and the film could have worked as either a romance or a cruel, McCabe & Mrs. Miller fable, but as Zwick has proven before, directing actors ain't his strong suit.
A third lead emerges in Djimon Hounsou, a farmer with a George Eliot-like name, Solomon Vandy. His son is snatched by the rebel armies and he is shipped off to mine diamonds under the watchful eyes of machine-gun toting guards. While mining, Vandy happens upon a fat, pink diamond and manages to bury it without being caught. Meanwhile, the son is put through a gauntlet by his rebel captors, designed to strip off his soul like flesh from bone. He is blindfolded and forced to shoot prisoners. His eardrums are constantly bombarded by violent rap music, intended to pump him up for mayhem. Eventually, circumstances will see the boy reunited with his father, and when the boy's first instinct is to point a gun at him, it's a genuinely tense moment. We know that Zwick enjoys pulling surprises on the audience -- it's not out of the question that he may try to shock us. The biggest surprise, however, is that despite all the pre-release publicity, the film never proves any terrible complicity on the part of the cartels.
Early on, a purely expository scene shows several middle-aged men sitting around a table informing each other of the fact that only 15 percent of the world's diamonds can now be considered conflict diamonds. We get a lot of other free-floating information that isn't connected at all to the story and actually feels like some kind of compromise to appease the De Beers of the world. Ed Zwick is at his worst when he tries to be the feature-length Ken Burns, and Blood Diamond provides him some opportunities for that. Thankfully, he never descends into full-blown preaching, but it can't possibly be a coincidence that the representative of the diamond cartel is played by actor Michael Sheen, who has made a mini-career out of playing his lookalike, Tony Blair, in film. Africa aid is a cause celebre for Britons far more than it is for Americans, and Zwick obviously decided to swing for the fences in tugging at their heartstrings. All those armless and legless children -- how could you, Prime Minister!
Blood Diamond takes place, more or less, in a minefield. Any conversation can be interrupted at any moment by a blast that knocks everyone off their feet. Most of the plot complications are solved by gunfire. Crazy surroundings that propel the characters to and fro work well for a weightless adventure picture like Raiders of the Lost Ark, but don't do much for a film like this one, with pretensions to seriousness. At times it's hard to know what you're supposed to think. Are we simply rooting for the good guys to be able to escape from this mess? As good as DiCaprio and Connelly are, they are at the mercy of their crazy environment. It's also a problem that halfway through the film, Connelly inexplicably boards an airplane and leaves the film, for good. Did the producers only agree to pay her for half a performance? A film that grounds itself -- at least partially -- as a romantic story should have a damn good reason for pulling a stunt like that, and I couldn't unearth that reason. Maybe her character was just smarter than I thought.