Having already roiled the diamond industry, “Blood Diamond” arrives with the best of intentions, harrowing sequences but ultimately mixed results. Another sweeping, at times heartbreaking view of the horrors inflicted upon Africa (in this case, Sierra Leone’s civil war), it’s also a quest for a fabulous stone that Hitchcock would have called a MacGuffin — namely, an ice-cube-sized pink diamond. Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou deliver powerful moments, but those moments are liberally spaced along a lengthy trek — one that periodically pauses to scold the U.S. audience for complicity in the region’s exploitation. As such, overseas appeal might outstrip the yield from domestic mines.
Set in 1999, rebels wage war against Sierra Leone’s government, and the movie quickly establishes the brutal toll exacted on innocent bystanders: Rebels raid a village occupied by the fisherman Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), lopping off arms, murdering women and children, and sending his family fleeing.
Solomon himself is taken hostage and forced to labor in the mining camps, which generate millions of dollars used to finance the arms trade and thus perpetuate Africa’s bloody nightmare. Before escaping during a government assault, however, Solomon unearths and hides an enormous, invaluable diamond, word of which reaches smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio), who prefers the label “soldier of fortune.”
Danny convinces Solomon that the only way to reunite his family is to sell the diamond and use the proceeds. Meanwhile, an American journalist, Maddy (Jennifer Connelly), wants the Afrikaner’s aid in exposing trafficking in “conflict stones” — diamonds plucked from war-torn areas and laundered through legitimate Western merchants.
“I’m using him, and you’re using me, and that is how it works, isn’t it?” Danny snaps at Maddy, who is clearly on hand to stir pangs of conscience as much as offer a potential love interest, given that the burgeoning war leaves scant time for romance.
Director Ed Zwick and writer Charles Leavitt perhaps strike their most lingering chord via a subplot involving Solomon’s son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers), who is brought into rebel custody and transformed into a “child soldier.” The indoctrination includes teaching youths to kill almost casually, and the sight of children ruthlessly brandishing automatic weapons becomes one of the film’s more indelible images.
In the end, though, Zwick is trying to juggle several balls at once and does so with a heavy hand — delivering a history lesson on the sordid resource exploitation of Africa from within and from abroad, expounding on the role of wanton consumerism (always nice right before the holidays), and still developing a traditional quest thriller that will theoretically open Danny’s blinkered eyes to the suffering around him. It’s a tremendous amount of ground to cover, and the film’s last third is less than wholly convincing or satisfying, unable to deliver on its early promise.
DiCaprio nevertheless again acquits himself admirably after “The Departed,” bringing a roguish charm to Danny. Hounsou is also characteristically strong as the movie’s moral center — thrust into a familiar position regarding cinematic Africa (think “Hotel Rwanda”) as well as his own resume (think “Gladiator”), separated from and struggling to safeguard his family, as chaos erupts all around him.
Filmed almost entirely in Africa, pic captures a big, adventurous scope, including sweeping vistas of lush jungle, large-scale bursts of action and a massive refugee camp poignantly described as “an entire country made homeless.”
Africa’s enduring sorrow is ripe for drama, but “Blood Diamond” is, finally, a fitting metaphor for the gems: Potentially brilliant from a distance, but upon closer inspection, one likely will see the flaws.