Monday, January 29, 2007

Review - Blood Diamond

Hollywood loves action movies; it’s what they do best, with spectacular explosions, clearly defined characters and plausibility stretched to the limit. Hollywood also loves message movies; they give filmmakers a chance to show how aware they are of all the terrible things going on in the world, to show they really care (apropos of nothing, these movies are particularly popular around Oscar time). Director Edward Zwick loves to combine these two types of filmmaking, and Blood Diamond is his latest attempt to wrap a mainstream blockbuster around a political message.

This time Zwick wants to tell us all about the terrible things people do to each other in the pursuit of diamonds. His film is set in Sierra Leone in 1999, at a time when the country torn asunder by a violent civil war partly waged over possession the lucrative diamond fields. Over the course of eight years this conflict left tens of thousands of people dead and turned millions more into refugees, and the film makes a surprisingly fair attempt to depict the horrors of this period. The opening massacre, with rebel troops raiding a small fishing village, is a powerful sequence, with women and children being gunned down indiscriminately and survivors later having their limbs chopped off to prevent them from voting in the forthcoming elections.

It’s the kind of unpleasantness which might make one gag on their popcorn, and it’s refreshing to see Zwick - too often engaged in such bland silliness as The Last Samurai - taking a harder edge to his depiction of this serious issue. But Blood Diamond is a strange film which can’t really decide what kind of movie it wants to be. At times, the picture displays a surprising intelligence and grittiness when engaging with its moral message, and at other times the film seems to retreat from the controversy and slip into no-nonsense action mode, with straightforward character arcs and storytelling which signposts every twist long before it arrives. The tension which lies between these two aspects of Blood Diamond tends to make it a rather frustrating picture, but it’s good to see a big-budget Hollywood film engaging - however clumsily - with these issues, and Zwick does at least deliver enough entertainment to make the often preachy tone more palatable.

The diamond which causes all the trouble here is discovered by Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a humble fisherman who is captured by guerrilla forces in the raid mentioned above and forced to work on the diamond fields against his will. As he sifts absently through the dirt, his thoughts drift to the whereabouts of his family who disappeared in the chaos, and he has no idea that his wife and daughter have ended up in a refugee camp while his son is being trained as a child soldier. Then, Solomon feels something hard in his hand, and is astonished to find himself holding an enormous pink diamond. He stealthily manages to bury the precious stone in the nearby undergrowth, but not before his violent taskmaster (David Harewood) has caught him in the act, and the only thing which saves Solomon’s life is the fact that government forces quickly descend on the area, rounding up everyone in sight.

In jail, Solomon’s secret doesn’t remain a secret for long, and his knowledge of this priceless gem’s location is music to the ears of Danny Archer (Leonardo Di Caprio), a Zimbabwean ex-mercenary smuggler who is languishing in a nearby cell. As soon as Danny is out he immediately arranges for Solomon’s release, and then he offers Vandy a tempting quid pro quo: If Solomon leads Archer to the diamond, he will help Solomon find his family.
Blood Diamond subsequently becomes a rip-roaring adventure movie - or at least, it would if it didn’t keep getting interrupted by stodgy lumps of moralising. That’s the problem with message movies, the story so often gets lost behind the message. Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is well-researched and plausible in its attempts to tie the whole business of conflict diamonds together, but it struggles to make its points in a manner which doesn’t disrupt the film’s framework. As a result, breathless action sequences are followed by expositional scenes in which political points are uncomfortable wedged into the actors’ mouths, with some of the dialogue cringeworthy in nature. “In America, it's bling-bling. But out here it's bling-bang” is one particularly awful line which Di Caprio seems a little embarrassed to be uttering; and Jennifer Connelly’s Maddy fares little better, with lines like “You might catch a minute of this on CNN somewhere between sports and weather”. Zwick is also guilty of laying things on a bit too thickly at times, like his decision to show us a young, healthy-looking African boy writing on a blackboard before he slowly turns and reveals a stump where his other arm should be. It’s a shameful piece of manipulation.

The thing is, Zwick doesn’t need to make his points in such a lumpen fashion; there’s an inherent potency to much of Blood Diamond which is hard enough to shake. Its depiction of a country devouring itself in a bloody and senseless manner is brilliantly realised, with exceptional location work and fine camerawork creating an authentic atmosphere, and the sight of young boys being brainwashed and drugged into gun-toting killers has a horrible raw power; with a shot of one young boy laughing as he fires haphazardly into a crowd being particularly chilling.

Moments like this don’t need Zwick twisting the knife, and Blood Diamond is a much better film when it focuses on its story and lets its politics work in the background. Sure, that story isn’t anything special - in fact it’s structurally reminiscent of a Hollywood adventure yarn from the 30’s or 50’s, with X marking the spot - but Zwick knows how to handle big-scale action sequences and Blood Diamond’s set-pieces are dynamic and thrilling pieces of filmmaking. It’s often ludicrous, of course, with our heroes dodging a million bullets before being saved by the handiest of scriptwriting contrivances, but as a mainstream action film it works splendidly.

The main reason Blood Diamond remains so watchable is the electric pairing of Di Caprio and Hounsou. As the tough antihero Di Caprio sports a convincing accent and delivers an intelligent, charismatic performance; his path to eventual redemption may be a little glib, but Di Caprio maintains a steeliness in his performance, keeping his emotions and true motives close to his chest. Alongside him, Hounsou - such a powerful and passionate screen presence - exudes anger and emotion, and there’s a fascinating Defiant Ones-style spark between the pair. They both have their own reasons for forming this uneasy alliance - Solomon’s family, Archer’s diamond - and there’s always an edge of mistrust in their relationship, with Di Caprio even displaying some latent racism when they explode at each other in the final act. Connelly sometimes feels like a third wheel alongside the leading pair, but she manages to fashion the cliché of the crusading journalist into a solid character, and she shares good chemistry with Di Caprio, even if their half-developed romance is an unnecessary touch. Nobody else gets much of a look-in though, and Michael Sheen is wasted in an almost wordless cameo (amusing as it is to see Tony Blair buying conflict diamonds).

Even though Blood Diamond gradually slips into a generic and unsatisfyingly flat climax (with a terrible, hugely patronising final scene), it generally offers a fun, engaging ride with a couple of exceptional performances on display. But Blood Diamond isn’t content to be an entertaining action movie, it wants to make a difference. Prior to its release there was a brief flurry of controversy over the impact it would have on the diamond trade, and leading jeweller De Beers was forced to make a statement defending its position. But how much impact will it make, really? Message movies like this usually cause the filmmakers to pat themselves on the back after bringing an important issue to the world's attention - then the industry under attack pats itself on the back after successfully riding out the storm - and then life goes on as before. I’m not sure if Blood Diamond will make many people think twice about the stones they’re wearing on their fingers - after all, as the predictable plotting and explosive action constantly reminds us, it’s only a movie.