"Blood Diamond" is about the moral conundrums of the international gem trade, but the movie offers its own form of barter. If you attend our lecture on Third World suffering and First World culpability, promise the filmmakers, we will give you Leonardo DiCaprio pitching woo to Jennifer Connelly and, yea, many loud and hair-raising action scenes. If you want to further examine the ethics behind your engagement ring, that's up to you -- but we sincerely hope you do.
It's a solid deal as these things go, but it's hardly a steal. As directed by Edward Zwick, the "thirtysomething" co-creator who moved on to films great ("Glory"), good ("The Last Samurai"), and neither ("The Siege"), "Blood Diamond" wears both its social conscience and its Hollywood calculation on its sleeve. The movie wants to rouse you to action while narcotizing you with Connelly's bottomless green eyes.
The first half dramatizes the lethal calculus of Africa's "conflict diamond" trade with impressive force. Set in Sierra Leone during the late-1990s civil war, "Blood Diamond" gives us two very different men and asks us to choose a hero. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is a village fisherman who dreams that his son Dia (Kagiso Kuypers ) will go to college. Danny Archer (DiCaprio) is a former Rhodesian mercenary turned diamond smuggler.
Danny's is a sweet business: The Sierra Leonean rebels trade gems mined by captives for money and weapons, middlemen like him sneak the diamonds over the border to Liberia, and we end up subsidizing the death of thousands when we buy our earrings. "Blood Diamond" shows us the path of one anonymous African through this process and, less convincingly, how a smuggler's moral compass might change direction.
After the rebels attack his village, Solomon is forced into slave labor; he comes upon a huge, rare "pink" diamond that becomes the film's McGuffin -- the thing everyone wants. Danny has been arrested at the border, meanwhile, and catches wind of Solomon's find while the two are in prison, the latter having landed there after government troops have taken the rebel compound.
Pulling strings that lead all the way to the top of the European diamond trade, Danny engineers his and Solomon's release, and a deal is reluctantly brokered: If the white man will help Solomon find his wife (Benu Mabhena ) and children, the black man will lead Danny to the jewel. Complicating matters is that Solomon's son has been brainwashed by the rebels into a pre-adolescent killing machine.
The movie is following recent history so far, and as a consequence, it's ugly as sin. Innocents die and limbs are chopped off, and the film dares you to look away. With the arrival of Connelly's fetching U S reporter, though, "Blood Diamond" takes a turn for the ordinary. Maddy Bowen -- even the name reeks of a screenwriting seminar -- is meant to be the movie's articulate conscience, and Connelly is too good an actress to simper, but her character's here only because Zwick and scripters Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell think you won't pay attention otherwise.
Maybe they're right, but it doesn't help the movie. (Nor does the script's reliance on coincidence in getting such characters as David Harewood's villainous Captain Poison exactly where they need to be.) Hounsou's Solomon nearly gets left behind in all the chaste eye-batting between Danny and Maddy; "Blood Diamond" is another film about black Africa that's really about a white couple. DiCaprio is excellent as Danny, and you almost forget the marvelous things he's doing with his accent, but his performance is undone by his character's escalating nobility.
Zwick makes a handsome film out of this combination of organics and plastic. As an entry in the advocacy-entertainment genre, in which glamorous movie stars bring our attention to the plight of the less fortunate, "Blood Diamond" is superior to 2003's ridiculous "Beyond Borders" while looking strident and obvious next to last year's "The Constant Gardener."
"T.I.A." -- "This is Africa" -- is the cynical mantra Danny and his fellow mercenaries toss around, but, really, This Is Hollywood. If "Blood Diamond" gets people to ask whether their diamonds have been sanctioned by the internationally agreed-upon Kimberley Process the next time they're at the jeweler, that's a start. Sometimes, though, there's nothing more cynical than the ways in which the film industry sells idealism to the masses.