"Blood Diamond" can't decide what kind of movie to be

by JD Warnock on December 10, 2006

in Print Reviews

If you’re going to make a your statement with a conscientious issue film, then do it. If instead, you want to make a fast-paced action adventure movie with a top-of-the-A-list superstar, then blockbuster away. If you try to do it all at once, you had better have the right stuff. Because if you don’t, you could fail at one – or worse both – and end up looking like a real fool. Unfortunately, director Ed Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” manages to come up short on both accounts, failing to do in two and a half hours what Kanye West did in four minutes with the song “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” West brought focus to the same issue, told us why its important and made it entertaining as hell in the process.

Zwick is responsible for “Glory,” a truly spectacular film that is easily justified as a modern classic featuring career performances from both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. So we know he can make good movies. Before I get going on “Blood Diamond,” I have to give him that. 

“Blood Diamond” is the second film in a row from Zwick that inadvertently points out one of Hollywood’s ugly bits…you can’t do blockbuster box office sales on the merits of story and message alone – you need big stars. “The Last Samurai” had all the potential in the world to be a great film. It very nearly was an intriguing tale of the final days of the Samurai in pre-modern Japan, but the narrative focused not on Japan, but on an American played by Tom Cruise, making the film a fish-out-of-water story with a little swordplay and warrior code thrown in for mega-hit appeal. The brave choice would have been to use an unknown in the Cruise role and put the focus on the Japanese characters where the soul of the story is- specifically Katsumoto- played beautifully by Ken Watanabe.

With “Blood Diamond” we find the same basic problem. In this case, the audience travels all the way to Africa to be told the story of two white people- one South African (Leonardo DiCaprio) and one American (Jennifer Connelly). Instead of putting the focus where it belongs – on the African character, a fisherman named Soloman Vandy (Djimon Hounsou )- we have to endure the paper thin sidestory, upgraded for sales to main story. I’m talking about DiCaprio’s diamond smuggler with the hardly believeable military past and Connelly’s emotionally anemic journalist with a heart of gold.

Djimon Hounsou, on the other hand, deserves tremendous praise. He is an undeniable presence. In most of his work, he is the most riveting character in the film and threatens to outshine his costars, whomever they may be. Hounsou does absolutely everything in his power to overcome “Blood Diamond’s” shortcomings and almost makes something out of a mediocre script and a half-measure movie.

Make no mistake. “Blood Diamond” is a blockbuster-style action movie. At one point, DiCaprio and Hounsou dodge in and out of rubble and bullet-ridden cars, untouched by a constant hail of gunfire, while everything and everyone else are brutally gunned-down. Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs or Bruce Willis’ John McClane would have fit right in had they come bounding in from off camera to save our seemingly bulletproof protagonists. There is a fine line between suspension of disbelief and downright silly.

And yet another film falls prey to the totally unnecessary dance scene. To this day, the only thing I remember of the second Matrix movie was the embarrassment I felt seeing a shirtless Morpheus ensighting a rave-riot atop a plateau in Zion. I laughed out loud at the ridiculous dance scene in “Blood Diamond” that sets up the mildly convincing connection between DiCaprio and Connelly.

A version of “Blood Diamond” made with a smaller budget and fewer expectations in the revenue department could have been amazing. All the time Zwick spends diverting your attention from the issues the screenwriter not-so-delicately rams down your throat could have been spent telling a much more nuanced and memorable story. Sadly, in “Blood Diamond’s” battle between action and issue, box office and substance, no one wins.

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