Watching first “The Departed” and now “Blood Diamond” has changed my conception of DiCaprio.
Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) works hard as a fisherman in his small village, trying to provide for his family and ensure his son, Dia (Kagiso Kuypers) goes to school. He wants his son to grow up and be a doctor. Walking his son home, Solomon notices a caravan of three vehicles overloaded with gun toting revolutionaries headed into his village. They immediately begin shooting and Solomon runs to his family, to protect them and get them to safety. But then he is caught. Instead of cutting his hands off, the leader of the revolutionary forces decides he would be better off working in the diamond mines. There, Solomon witnesses acts of brutality meant to keep any of the workers from stealing from the revolution. But Solomon finds a large pink diamond and realizes it will be worth a lot of money. He manages to hide it just before government forces invade and takes them all to jail. In jail, the commander starts yelling about Solomon’s pink diamond and Danny Archer (DiCaprio), a diamond smuggler, believes the story. He soon makes Solomon his number one project and gets him released, trying to persuade him to give him the pink diamond. The more people who find out about it, the more their lives are in danger. In town, Danny meets Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a journalist investigating conflict diamonds. She knows who Danny is and realizes he could be the break she needs for the story. He also recognizes how Maddy could help them. And Solomon realizes he can use the diamond to get his family back, provided they are still alive.
I have only grazed the surface of the story in Edward Zwick’s (“Glory”, “The Last Samurai”) new film “Blood Diamond”; that rare thing in Hollywood, and exciting message film that actually teaches us about the events behind the story.
Zwick is a very good director. His films deal with complicated subjects in an exciting way, making them accessible to the masses of people who frequent multiplexes, but also illuminate these subjects, making them interesting to the same people who are taking a break from shopping at the Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. Because he is able to deal with complicated subjects, and still make the characters interesting and the story accessible, his films are much better for it. People are more likely to retain information and knowledge if they are enjoying themselves or their interest is held. I can’t say watching “Blood Diamond” is ‘fun’, but it is well-made, exciting and holds your interest. One woman in the audience gasped audibly many times during the more shocking and graphic moments.
DiCaprio has had a very strong year. First, he portrayed undercover agent Billy Costigan in Marin Scorcese’s “The Departed” and now he plays Rhodesian diamond smuggler Danny Archer. Danny is a complex character. He is out for himself, always, because he is number one. Everything he does in his life is designed to somehow help him. Every relationship, every word he speaks, every move he makes is calculated to somehow get him money or advance his career. He has a network of people who assist him, but he can’t trust them and realizes the only reason they are involved in his life is because of money. Gradually, throughout the film, we learn a little bit about his life and his upbringing. Danny hasn’t had an easy life and this information makes the character all the more interesting and intriguing.
The two people he meets over the course of the film are both pawns in his game to get more money. To a diamond smuggler, the very thought of a large pink diamond, the type Solomon has found, is too much. He simply can’t pass up the chance to try and find it and make it his. He starts to manipulate Solomon into revealing the whereabouts of the hidden diamond.
But Solomon isn’t stupid and recognizes Danny for what he is. As strong as DiCaprio is, Hounsou is better. From the first moments with his son, Hounsou shows us Solomon’s dedication to his family. He loves them and every waking moment is spent providing for them and helping to make his children’s life better. As soon as he sees the revolutionaries speeding towards his village, he knows he has to do something. Their presence will not be good news for the people. After he goes to work at the diamond mine, he witnesses how brutal these people are, yet, as soon as he finds the pink diamond, he has an opportunity and he takes it, realizing this rare stone could help him.
As soon as Danny enters his life, Solomon knows what he wants, despite what the man tells him. Initially reluctant, Solomon comes to realize he can use Danny to help him. Danny is so set upon his goal, that Solomon can use this determination to help him get closer and closer to the diamond.
Djimon Hounsou has been in some impressive films, but this performance is heads and shoulders above the rest. Every moment he just exudes the determination we feel in Solomon; his number one goal is to get his family back and will do anything to make that happen.
Jennifer Connelly is less interesting as Maddy Bowen. As a journalist, she makes it a practice to travel to conflict situations in foreign countries, and get to the root of the story. Other journalists make comments about her ability to get in and out of these dangerous places with nary a scratch. So it is not surprising that Danny finds her in this part of Africa, as a civil war rages. Because of this ability, she writes for some high profile magazines and newspapers, her voice is heard. The most interesting thing about her is that she is certainly no angel either.
As soon as she meets Danny, Maddy realizes he is the key to her new expose and needs the information he has to break the story wide open. She is willing to get that information at any cost. She helps Danny and Solomon, seduces Danny, uses her connections to get Solomon some help and more. Because she is willing to go to these lengths, her character is much more interesting. But in the end, Connelly has difficulty making this character anything more than a third wheel. So much of the story is about Danny and Solomon that Maddy is little more than a supporting character whenever she shows up.
“Diamond” is filled with some terrific, exciting action scenes. Danny and Solomon are never allowed to rest for long and are frequently on the move, from Danny’s former military commander, Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo, “The Mummy”) and many other people, all of whom want that diamond to support their cause. Some of these scenes are so realistic looking it is amazing people weren’t harmed during their filming.
But “Diamond” also wants to get its message across and Zwick manages this with ease. Through brief exchanges and short montages, we learn the path these diamonds take to retail shops, the efforts people take to get them from the mines and why they are so important to these various groups, what they end up funding and more. These moments are fully integrated into the story and are usually quite brief, it seems like every time two characters start talking they are interrupted by bullet fire or an ambush or some type of action. Because the story keeps moving, and we are kept on our toes, we are entertained by every aspect of the film. This is a much different approach than some other filmmakers use (Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, I’m looking at you…). Other filmmakers are more likely to compose a series of monologues for their characters, in an effort to get the message across, but in the end, their messages just sound preachy and we don’t really learn anything from the film. In the end, it is much more effective to provide an entertaining message, which will help the audience retain what you are getting across. Believe me, many of the images and events of “Blood Diamond” are seared on my mind.
“Blood Diamond” is a very good film, featuring great performances from DiCaprio and Hounsou (if he isn’t nominated for an Oscar, the awards are meaningless) and presents an entertaining story with memorable facts about one of the less known problems in the world.