An action picture with narrative pull and visceral excitement is, in and of itself, a worthy object of cinema, and at the nation's multiplexes, Apocalypto rather strikingly fulfills, if not exceeds, these basic expectations. Next door, however, will be another action picture that aspires to an additional goal: heightened awareness of a social-justice issue, namely the cost of "conflict diamonds." With Blood Diamond, director Edward Zwick neither can nor would escape Hollywood slickness, but instead puts it to the service of an ambitious, conscientious, and unfortunately belated action film.
As in Zwick's The Last Samurai, ham-handed words and gestures rear up regularly in Blood Diamond, but the new film's melodrama feels both more proportional and more useful to the picture's end of equal parts enlightenment and entertainment. Set in Sierra Leone in 1999, Blood Diamond establishes how the civil war made refugees of innocent villagers. Fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) enjoys a relatively untroubled life with his wife and children until the anti-government rebels of the Revolutionary United Front attack his village, roust his family, and enslave him in the diamond fields to subsidize the war.
When Vandy finds and secrets away a "pink" (a 100-karat diamond), he makes himself the target of fiery-tempered RUF Captain Poison (David Harewood) and wily, diamond-smuggling mercenary Daniel Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), formerly of the South African Defense Force during the Angolan Civil War. When circumstances find Vandy sprung from captivity, he has only one goal on his mind: to reunite his family. One child, a boy named Dia (Kagiso Kuypers), has been conscripted by the rebels for indoctrination and paramilitary service; Vandy's wife and other children languish in one of many concentration-style refugee camps.
Meanwhile, photojournalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) has set her sights on Archer, who—if he were so inclined—could cough up the details of the illegal diamond trade and, in particular, the ties between the rebels and unscrupulous diamond corporation Van Der Kaap. Warily agreeing that they can serve each other's interests, the three set out to recover the stone and Vandy's family.
Zwick's weakness for Hollywood gloss (Connolly's supposedly rough-and-ready journalist is suspiciously well-coiffed, and James Newton Howard's punchy score distracts) doesn't much mitigate the film's conscience and rather serves its impressive scale. Star power rescues most of Charles Levitt's dialogue (not even DiCaprio can save the line "You know, in America, it's bling-bling, but out here it's bling-blang"), and though DiCaprio's South African dialect wavers, he and Hounsou prove otherwise convincing in their physical and emotional paces.
Maddy fairly spits at Daniel, "Not all Africans kill each other as a way of life," but Blood Diamond nevertheless opens itself up to charges of insensitivity. Here again is the undying hedged bet of telling an African story through the vehicle of a white protagonist, and Zwick doesn't hesitate from portraying the RUF as amoral savages. But Leavitt also reserves distaste for Archer's supreme self-interest, learned under the ruthless exploitation of his former colonel (Arnold Vosloo).
The film maintains a tension of Daniel's hard-earned cynicism and Solomon's desperate hope, as Maddy grips to her last remaining ideals about reportage making some difference. Make no mistake: the anti-hero's pangs of conscience are a foregone conclusion, given the moral checkpoints all along his journey. A jungle reprogrammer of rebel-brainwashed youth reminds Daniel of the potential for good in anyone: "None of knows which path will lead us to God."
The film takes persistent potshots at American attitudes: the story unfolds as the U.S. is distracted by the Monica Lewinski scandal, and one blighted villager mutters, "Let's hope they don't discover oil here. Then we'd have real problems." Clunky though they may be, the lines still plant their sting, and Zwick puts his audience on notice. The final titles announce, without further explanation, that "It is up to the consumer to insist that a diamond is conflict-free" (for the record, diamond retailers may be obliged to provide documentation to this effect).
The unwieldy plot has a tendency to lurch back and forth between conspicuously pointed dialogues and credibility-stretching action sequences, and Zwick certainly tests his luck by adding a melodramatic coda to his melodramatic climax. All in all, though, I'll take Blood Diamond over Lethal Weapon 5 any day. Let's call it a flawed gem.