Blood Diamond (2006)
Written by: Charles Leavitt
Directed by: Edward Zwick
“Blood Diamond” stands as an example of how poor marketing can kill a movie’s box office performance. When I first heard of this film, I was intrigued by the idea and I’m a big fan of all the actors and filmmakers involved. But all it took was one line - just one line - to completely kill my interest. This line was at the forefront of every teaser, trailer and clip that was shown on television. And it’s one of the worst lines in history. No, the Worst. I find it hard to believe that it ever made its way into any kind of medium, much less film. Much as it pains me, here it is:
“You know in America, it’s ‘bling bling’, but out here it’s ‘bling bang’.”
Done. That tore it for me. And it’s too bad, because “Blood Diamond” is a good movie, a solid action film that attempts, valiantly, to be something more.
The poor actor who’s forced to say the literary travesty that is ‘bling bang’ is Leonardo DiCaprio. He plays Archer, an ex-militant who smuggles diamonds from war-torn Sierra Leone across the border to Liberia, a more stable country that ‘legitimate’ diamond merchants are happy to do business with. The diamonds are mostly mined by local villagers who are ripped from their families by rebel militias and sent into forced labor. Unfortunately, the premise of this movie isn’t fiction.
One such villager is Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), whose wife and daughters are sent to refugee camps and whose son is conscripted into the service of the rebels. While working the diamond fields, Solomon finds an enormous uncut stone, worth millions, which he buries before fleeing the camp when it’s attacked by government troops. Archer soon finds out about the stone and enlists Solomon to lead him to it, with the promise that Solomon can use the proceeds to find and free his family.
Also drawn into this web is Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), the recipient of the aforementioned ‘bling bang’ atrocity. Maddy is a field reporter who helps Archer and Solomon travel across the war-torn country under the guise of being journalists. She’s looking to take down the diamond cartels who trade in conflict diamonds and sees Archer as a prime source for information.
“Blood Diamond” doesn’t skirt the controversial issue of marketing diamonds that come from unstable African nations. In fact, it tackles it head-on. Solomon’s story is heartbreaking, even more so because this is the ‘Hollywood’ version, almost assuredly toned down for American audiences. But it remains horrific, as do the scenes of violence and war in Sierra Leone. Archer often uses the phrase ‘TIA’ - meaning ‘This Is Africa’ - as way of noting that these terrible events are just another cycle in a long line of instability. Archer is a product of this environment - he’s neither sympathetic nor an outright scoundrel. He’s a survivor, just as Solomon must learn to become. His methods are the toxic byproduct of years of conflict.
But “Blood Diamond” serves two masters. The story of conflict diamonds takes prominence, but it is above all a cracker jack action movie. And there are few who do mainstream action movies as well as Edward Zwick. Archer, Solomon and Maddy often find themselves fleeing from the rebels, the government or both. There’s an escape sequence as Archer and Solomon flee the capital city that is particularly harrowing. But all of the action is suspenseful and well-staged, while not falling too far afoul of the bad taste inherent in setting an action movie during a real-life conflict.
But one of the movie’s biggest strengths - its action - is also its biggest weakness. “Blood Diamond” tries admirably to serve both the gravity of its stories of bloodshed and family peril and the action that’s required every 20 minutes or so. But this kind of message was not meant for a blockbuster action movie. And the story is often derailed by the required action beats. In trying to be both a message movie and a thriller, the film doesn’t fully succeed in being either. And it does, on occasion, feel insensitive to the real-life death taking place today in countries like Sierra Leone.
What pulls the film together is the acting. The performances in this film are outstanding, but DiCaprio and Hounsou are the real stand-outs here. Both were Oscar-nominated for their work in this film and rightfully so.
Djimon Hounsou remains one of the most underrated working actors. His performance carries the film. Solomon’s heartbreak and love for his family, along with the grief of losing them, open the door for overacting, but Hounsou’s work is brilliant. Solomon is a peaceful man, but he has a darkness in him that Hounsou makes into terrifying and gut-wrenching reality. The fact that he lost the Oscar to Alan Arkin’s light-as-air performance in “Little Miss Sunshine” tells you all you need to know about the Academy.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Leonardo DiCaprio will emerge as the best actor of this generation. Or at least the most versatile. But here, I bought him as an adult, a world-weary fully grown man for the first time. Even in “The Departed,” which he was brilliant in, he seemed like a boy among men. But his performance as Archer goes beyond the accent and the steely glare. You can see the pain, the defiance in his eyes. His pursuit of the diamond reminded me of Humphrey Bogart’s character in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” a man who will follow an obsession just to prove a point - even to his own ruin. It’s a fantastic performance.
“Blood Diamond” is a good film that could have been great if the film’s backers had allowed it to have the courage of having a message without pandering to the audience with unnecessary action. Yes, most mainstream films have to follow a certain formula. But the ones that really stand out find a way to skirt the rules. Besides, what do executives know, anyway? Anyone who thinks ‘bling bang’ is acceptable can’t have very good judgement.