Blood Diamond is a perfectly serviceable action flick that tries desperately hard to be a message movie, although the plot dips the spoon in too many stews to actually cook any one to perfection.
Where to start? Don't buy conflict diamonds. Yeah. Got that one. Desperate African family torn apart by war. Got that one. Child soldiers in Sierra Leone. Got that one. Handsome smuggler and doe-eyed journalist play game of cat-and-mouse while chasing big story and bigger score. Got it.
The story is good but not great — a gradual coming together of three tales, that of diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio doing a truly atrocious white African accent); Solomon Vandy, (Djimon Hounsou) a fisherman in Sierra Leone whose family is swept up in the nation's civil war; and journalist Maddy Bowen, (Jennifer Connelly) who's chasing a story about conflict diamonds.
What's good about Blood Diamond? Gorgeous scenery. Shot in South Africa and Mozambique, the African coast, the interior and the African people are amazingly alive and beautiful. At least until the shooting starts.
The actors involved all know their craft, that's a given. DiCaprio especially seems driven to make you forget that he was ever a heartthrob who starred in that one movie with the big boat. But the script doesn't do him any favors. Even his one great line — "In America, it's bling bling. But out here, it's bling bang." — reeks of studio polishing.
Connelly can act —her Oscar proves that — but her character feels like an inserted moral compass, the stock "journalist with a heart of gold" character. And somehow, even after a car crash and a wild trek through the bush, she never loses that just-had-my-hair-and-makeup-done look.
British actor David Harewood, who plays the murderous Captain Poison, also deserves special praise for bringing depth to the role of his rebel captain and leader. It would be far too easy to be a caricature, especially as he is tasked with turning small boys into killers. Yet this is a fact of life in Africa. Kill or be killed — and as the Captain talks to one young soldier, you see that he knows the struggles his young charges face, and that he must win that battle for the sake of his country.
The movie truly belongs to Djimon Hounsou though, who brings to vivid life the soul-rending despair, anger and rage of a grieving father whose family is torn asunder by civil war and who will do anything to put his life back together. Whether fighting for his life in the African bush or pleading with his child-soldier son to spare his life, his performance reeks of honesty and emotion. When Oscar nominations are handed out, it would be a crime of global proportions if Hounsou's name is not on the list.
What's bad about Blood Diamond? The action sequences are either hails of gunfire from child soldiers, mercenaries and soldiers or the brutal slash of a machete. While the film attempts to portray this chilling violence as a fact of life in parts of war-torn sub-Saharan Africa, it does little to explain or contextualize it, although a passage of dialogue does lay the blame for the tradition of limb chopping at the feet of the original Belgian royals.
The film feels formulaic — exactly what you'd expect a big-budget studio "message movie" to feel like. I think the movie might possibly have succeeded had it not tried such a sprawling plot. One plotline. Not three. Blood Diamonds are bad. Okay. And .... what's next?