EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I should preface my thoughts on Edward Zwick's new film Blood Diamond (** out of ****) by noting that, because of my friend's tardiness (he unexpectedly had to deal with a flat tire before coming to the movie theater where we saw the film this past Sunday), I technically missed the first 10 minutes or so of the film. On the theory that I probably didn't miss much that I couldn't glean from the rest of the film---Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) getting separated from his family, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) being introduced---I'll go ahead and pool my thoughts anyway, because I'm not sure there's much to say about the film, an obviously sincere and well-meaning but awfully clichéd piece of Hollywood message-movie entertainment.
I suppose it's probably too easy a criticism, however true, to lodge at Blood Diamond that it's mostly predictable, both plot-wise (its use of one man's quest to reunite his family as a structuring device strikes me as something of an action movie cliché) and as far as its characterizations go: Danny Archer, with all his wiseass cynicism masking personal pain, is pretty much straight out of Casablanca (1942), and most of the characters seem to be shaded in degrees of either black or white. However, Zwick and screenwriter Charles Leavitt seem to have conceived the film at the start as a familiar old-style Hollywood entertainment, so perhaps they were fully aware from the start that they were dabbling in fairly shopworn dramatic material. Perhaps, in this case, they were trusting that audiences would see through the clichés and grasp at the film's underlying point: to make us think twice about where that cherished diamond you may glimpse lovingly at a store window actually came from, and whether it's a legitimate diamond or a so-called "conflict diamond," an illegal black-market diamond from Sierra Leone.
So perhaps the best way to approach Blood Diamond is to determine whether the film works as a piece of political activism. For me, it just misses in that regard, although it misses in a slightly different way from last year's The Constant Gardener. Turns out that the problem with Blood Diamond isn't so much that the Africans who are the victims of civil war and government-wrought atrocities are given short shrift, as they arguably were in The Constant Gardener. Oddly enough, I think the film's clichéd nature is the problem here: although it wears its noble intentions on its sleeves, Blood Diamond ultimately comes off as a standard-issue Hollywood action epic with a thin veneer of social protest, and even if it makes you more aware of the potential histories of a valuable diamond---not an unimportant thing to be aware of, I'd say---that doesn't necessarily make the movie itself any more interesting. (Hotel Rwanda (2004): now there's a Hollywood message movie that actually works to make your temperature boil at the issue it raises: specifically, where the heck was America and the rest of the international community when the Hutus were butchering the Tutsis in droves? It might have taken the inspirational Schindler's List (1993) route in approaching its subject, but it didn't bury its anger amidst stale action movie clichés as Blood Diamond does.)
If the movie works at all---and, admittedly, it has its moments---it's mostly due to Zwick's obvious conviction in his overfamiliar dramatic material (given visual lushness by D.P. Eduardo Serra, especially when he silhouettes human figures in extreme wide shots) and to the effectiveness of its cast, particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou. (Jennifer Connolly does her best with the thin part she's given, playing an idealistic journalist who's basically around to comfort the two male lead characters at the right times.) Hounsou lends Blood Diamond whatever weight it has, convincingly portraying his character's singlemindedness even when he seems to take a backseat to the two other stars. As for DiCaprio: if The Departed didn't convince people that DiCaprio had the gravitas in him to play non-romantic leads, than his magnetic turn in Blood Diamond should silence those naysayers who've only seen boyish charm in him in the past. It's a charm that Steven Spielberg used to great effect in Catch Me If You Can (2001), but it wasn't quite a perfect fit when he tackled Howard Hughes in Scorsese's The Aviator (2004). Here, he has such gravity and intensity---a paradoxically relaxed intensity that doesn't seem overwrought---that he almost manages to convince us that we're not watching something we've seen a million times before.