If I told you Leonardo DiCaprio's newest big-screen adventure is an action thriller with exotic locales, bone-jarring explosions, brutally realistic bloodshed, more gunplay than a "Rambo" film and a potential romance with Jennifer Connelly to boot, that sounds like one big damn fun bucket of a popcorn movie.
If I told you DiCaprio's latest starring effort was a liberal-minded, socially conscious film tackling issues of racial politics, humankind's endless capacity for greed and the nefarious nature of some members of the international business community, that sounds like something that wins awards from do-gooder groups and has the potential to bore you to tears.
In lesser hands, "Blood Diamond" could have been too preachy and earnest, or an exploitative Hollywood action pic but as director Edward Zwick has shown us with films such as "Glory," "Courage Under Fire" and "The Last Samurai," he is a seasoned expert at balancing mainstream entertainment action with serious and respectful treatment of big-picture issues, and "Blood Diamond" might be Zwick's most complete film yet. It's certainly one of the best movies of 2006, with nomination-worthy performances from DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and especially Djimon Hounsou, an actor of great fire and dignity who somehow manages to avoid venturing into cliched, noble sidekick territory even though he is almost always cast as the cliched, noble sidekick.
Filmed with gritty, documentary-level authenticity, "Blood Diamond" is set in the war-ravaged Sierra Leone of the late 1990s, where the so-called freedom-fighting rebel forces are nothing but bloodthirsty sociopaths who storm into village after village, executing the women and the weaker and smaller men, sending the stronger men to slave work camps and "recruiting" boys of 12 to join the revolution. In one such massacre, the rebel troops spray the sky with gunfire, groove to hip-hop, swig beer and cackle madly as their leader, Captain Poison (David Harewood, in the most menacing performance of the year this side of Forest Whitaker in "The Last King of Scotland"), struts like a rooster and casually chops off the limbs of children and shoots his victims at point-blank range.
Hounsou is Solomon Vandy, a Mende fisherman who lives just above the poverty line and dreams of a better life for his bright young son, Dia. When Captain Poison and his troop of thugs storm into town, Solomon's wife and three children manage to escape, but Solomon is sent off to work in a diamond mine. Later Captain Poison personally oversees Dia's transformation into a slogan-spouting, AK-47 wielding rebel soldier who is brainwashed into believing he is a child of the revolution and his father is a traitor to the homeland.
DiCaprio's Danny Archer is the classic wartime anti-hero soldier of fortune who doesn't take sides and couldn't care less about the hundreds of thousands of families that have been torn apart by a civil war that has nothing to do with them. (It takes a while to get used to DiCaprio's South African accent -- perhaps because he doesn't overdo it and sound like a semi-Australian.) Archer is a former soldier from Zimbabwe who now smuggles so-called conflict diamonds or more accurately, "blood diamonds" from Sierra Leone into Liberia, where they can legally be sold to legitimate diamond merchants in Great Britain who don't ask too many questions about the origins of the gems.
When Solomon finds (and quickly buries) a pink diamond of breathtaking quality and size, it becomes one of the most pursued treasures since the Maltese Falcon. Archer sees the priceless stone as his ticket out of Africa, and he pulls every trick in the well-connected mercenary's handbook to attach himself to Solomon. He has Solomon bailed out of jail, he saves Solomon's life on more than one occasion and he holds out the promise of Solomon saving and reuniting with his family if only Solomon will lead him to that diamond.
In hot pursuit of Archer is Maddy Bowen, a thrill-seeking hot-zone journalist who, unlike Archer, actually "gives a s---," as she puts it. She wants to expose the blood-stained hypocrisies of the diamond trade to the world, but she needs Archer to go on the record with names and dates and bank account numbers. Archer has no interest in cooperating until he needs Maddy to help him help Solomon.
Captain Poison and an equally ruthless Sierra Leone Army colonel are also obsessed with the pink diamond. Each casually spills the bloods of hundreds just to get closer to the gem. The only one who has a pure motive for retrieving the diamond is Solomon, who knows it is his one and only chance to get his life back.
The first hour of "The Blood Diamond" is one pounding gunfight and chase scene after another. But in epic wartime dramas like this, there's always a pause for at least the potential of romance. Archer and Maddy have an immediate physical attraction, but neither trusts the other until they've survived a half-dozen close calls and they find themselves catching their breaths in an idyllic setting, and well let's just Zwick isn't above adding a coat or two of schmaltz to his artwork.
It's impossible to hide Jennifer Connelly's ravishing looks, but she does a credible job of playing a thrill-seeking journalist who still has a conscience. (Why can't you be a gorgeous writer?) Like Brad Pitt, DiCaprio looks like a GQ cover model even when he's sweaty and gritty and unshaven, but he gives a solid performance as a soldier of fortune who just might be capable of one noble sacrifice. And Hounsou simply owns every scene he's in.
"Blood Diamond" is a work of amazingly orchestrated chaos. Zwick puts us on the edge of battle-sequence fatigue with one intense scene after another, and he'll no doubt turn off some viewers with the preachy exposition scenes. Still, this is an important and deeply moving story that also manages to be one of the most intensely entertaining films of the year.