In 1999, the tiny West African nation of Sierra Leone was wrapping up a decade of devastating civil war. It's here that Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) sets his latest actioner, Blood Diamond. There's requisite battles -- between government, rebel and mercenary forces -- but this time they're backlit by the country's chief resource, diamonds. See, the rebels control the mines. The diamonds are smuggled into Liberia and cashed in for arms. Then these "conflict stones" enter the international market (and perhaps even end up in your jewelry).
In our story, a fisherman named Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) has been conscripted to the mines, where he discovers, and hides, a huge pink diamond. Meanwhile, mercenary-cum-smuggler Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) loses a batch of gems, and kills time with Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a plucky investigative journalist fishing about Freetown for a story.
In short order, "the pink" binds these three: Solomon hopes to relocate his family; Archer needs to pay off a debt; and Bowen wants Archer's lowdown on the shifty diamond trade. Toss in a subplot about child soldiers, and we're off across the mountains for a two-hour-plus drama with a dash of consumer advisory.
The first half has some crackle: The trio, each motivated by self-interest, take turns sniping at each other (Archer gets in a few digs about globe-hopping journalists with their "laptops and little bottles of malaria pills"). Archer is no hero -- he's a white African (pointedly, he claims Rhodesia as his homeland), who survives by casually exploiting ever-shifting situations.
Zwick enjoys a crisis scene, and amid convincing mayhem, our players make several exciting escapes. Zwick doesn't scrimp on the violence -- there's copious close-range shooting (including children as victims and as killers), severed limbs, a bludgeoning. In fairness, such acts have roots in reality. But after an hour, you can feel Zwick's artificial rhythm set in: action-talk-bloodbath, repeat.
Blood Diamond's efforts to educate are somewhat clunky, but do represent an attempt to forefront the region's history, rather than just romanticize it as an exciting backdrop for action heroes. Still, the film falls into patterns familiar when outsiders mine Africa for narratives. The natives are presented either as savage or as impotent (it'll take a white man to sort both lots out); there's a National Geographic-style close-up tour of human misery; and no story, no matter how shocking, is worth hearing until a white journalist from the civilized world reports on it. At one point, Bowen protests that she needs "facts, not victims" for a persuasive story.
The last 20 minutes of Blood Diamond has the stamp of Hollywood-style resolution all over it, designed to lift us from the muck of human awfulness, back out to our clean cars in the well-lit parking lot. The coda includes a loophole, too, so that you can continue to happily purchase diamonds. But extrapolating from the film's earlier cynicism and brutality, were this a true story, you could draft a more likely, and cold-blooded, conclusion.
Starts Fri., Dec. 8