Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Years ago, in 1989, Edward Zwick directed GLORY, about black troops in the American Civil War, a film rightly thought to have been a breakthrough in our movies by a promising new director. Since then, unfortunately, his pictures like LEGENDS OF THE FALL, THE SEIGE, and THE LAST SAMURAI have tended to be disappointments, mixing violence, atmosphere, a cultural clash, with heavy-handed "importance" and iconic casts, often pitting two protagonists, white and ethnic, against a moral question.
BLOOD DIAMOND is such a film.
It begins well, in 1998, on the shores of Sierra Leone, West Africa, as Solomon Vendy (Djimon Hounsou), a fisherman of the Mende tribe, leaves his wife Jassie (Benu Mabhena) and baby to walk his son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) toward his first day at school. Solomon wants his son to have a profession, as many an American father might, not have him spend his life in hard physical labor. After a long day on the water, Solomon meets Dia to ask him what he has learned. As they chat, walking along the country road, they hear trucks coming. Trucks of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), engaged in civil war with the Freetown Government, are careening down upon their home.
The revolutionaries, many of them under the age of twelve, shoot up the village, machine gun many people, and set the huts on fire.
Solomon manages to save his wife and baby, but he and Dia are captured, and all are separated. Not knowing where his family is, he watches as the other men of the village are shot or maimed.
[We are told that Leopold, the King of the Belgians, over in the Congo, established these practices in the late 19th Century to insure loyalty in his diamond mines, and on his rubber plantations. King Leopold had as many as 15,000,000 human beings slaughtered; cutting off the hands of other resisters with machetes to create living symbols, burning villages, or raping the women.]
Spared because of his powerful frame, and digging out gems in the mud of the river for RUF Commados, Solomon discovers a hundred carat rough pink diamond. He manages to bury it up on the bank before a foreman [they have names like Commander Rambo or Commander Zero] catches him. Things look bad for Solomon, but as so often in this movie, just as he is about to be murdered, government troops arrive. The Commander is half-blinded with shrapnel, and everyone is taken by truck to jail in Freetown.
Meanwhile, on a savannah to the southeast, Danny Archer (Leonardo DeCaprio), a tough, amoral Rhodesian, who served in a mercenary army as a young man, is smuggling diamonds (stitched into the throats of goats) from Sierra Leone into Liberia, where they can be legally sold. For decades, the profits from this trade financed revolutions in Southern Africa, Angola, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On this trip, Danny runs into a patrol of Government soldiers he can't bribe.
Danny, too, is soon in the same Freetown tank as Solomon. He hears when the half delirious wounded rebel commander recognizes Solomon, and cries out that he will not forget him, or the large pink diamond buried on the river bank.
Soon sprung by his agent, Danny is drinking beer (and bribing a bartender to find him a firearm) at a fashionable Freetown dockside bar, when he meets the cooly beautiful Maddy Brown (Jennifer Connelly), a print journalist, an investigative reporter. They feint each other out. She is attracted to him and marks him as a diamond smuggler -- perhaps the little red notebook he carries will be the source of her next Big Story. At first Danny avoids her, but he comes to sees her as prospective one night stand, and perhaps part of his ticket out of Africa.
If Danny can only follow that big fellow, Solomon, to where he buried the huge pink diamond, he will have the other part of his ticket, and so he has Solomon met upon his release from prison and given some money. Though the fisherman is mainly interested in finding his wife and children, the search begins, eventually with the help of Maddy . . . .
The reader will readily see how tried and (in this case) how untrue G. Gaby Mitchell's plot is. It is whisked up from KING SOLOMON'S MINES, THE AFRICAN QUEEN, a pinch of THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE,
with a tad from FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS thrown in at the last moment.
Every so often in its 143 minutes, BLOOD DIAMOND's forward movement stops for a shot of an African lingering sunset, a flowing river, or a park-like jungle. Director Zwick's usual film editor, Steven Rosenbaum, plugs them in, as if following a formula. And we are treated to several sessions of International conferences, where an American Ambassador named Walker (Stephen Collins) reminds uncomfortable looking European leaders of the deadly wages of "The Blood Diamond Trade." [Note that all the diamonds we see in Africa are either pink or literally soaked in blood; by the time they reach the gem cutters in Antwerp, they have been cleansed pure white.] Ambassador Walker informs the conferees that the 15% of the 23 billion dollar worldwide diamond business devoted to buying illegal arms, murder, and enslaving children must be stopped.
In the background, with poker smirks, are Van de Kamp (read De Beers -- Marius Weyers) and his English agent Simmons (Michael Sheen, who plays Tony Blair in THE QUEEN). They pledge to reduce that 15% percent to just 1%, but having heard Danny Archer's inside stuff, we know better.
The Production Design of veteran Dan Weil (THE FIFTH ELEMENT, 1998) reminds one of THE CONSTANT GARDNER (a much superior film on a similar theme), and whenever BLOOD DIAMOND is playing against action or crowds, Cinematographer Eduardo Serra's work can be exciting, impressive, beautiful, fearsome.
But when Director Zwick has to have his characters talk to each other in quieter settings, BLOOD DIAMOND often falls apart. The screenplay and dialogue by Charles Leavitt (K-PAX, 1997) are pretty dreadful. Whenever Solomon is lying by a jungle road at night -- why there is Dia, his son, in that truck; whenever he comes to a refugee camp with Danny and Maddy -- Oh! Right there, are his wife Jassie and his baby girl! Should the plot hit a kink, here comes a helicopter gunship, a truckload of drunken children firing AK-47's, or Danny's unerring tracer plane.
[Veteran Composer James Newton Howard (8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, 1985) tries to help with everything from hip-hop to heavenly choirs,]
The dialogue is worse. The admirably strong Djimon Hounsou (THE FOUR FEATHERS, 2002) comes off best because he must speak English like a man who has learned it formally. Leonardo DiCaprio also carries
his role as a modern Humphrey Bogart well, his cliches covered by a heavy, clipped Africanz dialect.
That leaves Jennifer Connelly to have to deliver the worst lines with her lovely straight-eyed gaze. She must be a modern young woman, drinking with the boys, using rotten language, and displaying what sound much of the time as insincere PC attitudes. She also must be deeply insecure and serious, yet ready to use her sexual wiles at the drop of an Uzi. Cynical about the worth of her work, she laments that her truly important expose of human exploitation may be "shown at home between the Sports and the Weather." The blow-job which Bill Clinton is admitting on CNN he got from Monica Lewinsky, she concludes, will probably interest the American Public more. True, but as written, the lines ring hollow.
The audience I was in laughed several times in the wrong places, but not to give away the best laugh line in BLOOD DIAMOND, an old African man looks around at the devastation caused by diamonds, and says: "Thank God, they didn't find -- "
I won't finish that line, but the picture could have used more of them.
Though it may be for a good cause, BLOOD DIAMOND reaches a new low in the pornography of violence by showing several sequences of eight and nine year-old black kids mowing down fellow Africans with AK-47's, using graphically edited and salaciously choreographed footage.
You might be better off renting the recent LORD OF WAR (about the arms trade), which remains splendidly cynical throughout, and does not so often tempt us to grab our weapons as we watch.
Thinking of the script for BLOOD DIAMOND, I ask: "Where is Ben Hecht or Wayne K. Mathias when we need him?!!"
Check out reviews of a number of films mentioned in this review:
THE FOUR FEATHERS (1939): Empire rampant, but now quaintly innocent, as we look at what a mess we have made of our own imperial aspirations. --
THE FOUR FEATHERS (2002): Djmon Hounsou was the best thing in this lugubrious, pointless remake of the above classic. --
LORD OF WAR: Nicholas Cage is a smuggler on the other end of the equation, in a film I keep thinking of. --
THE QUEEN: Current. Another film about public taste. With Helen Mirren probably up for another Oscar Nomination, possibly Michael Sheen's Prime Minister Blair, too, and a public inquiry opening into the death of Princess Diana, THE QUEEN will take the public attention.
THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE: Possibly the greatest of all search movies. --
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Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age