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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Black market ruse

DiCaprio’s ‘soldier of fortune’ turn, cartoonishly nasty bad guys and one shimmering pink stone

Posted By on Wed, Dec 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM

Strip away the fat budget, graphic violence and flashy editing and Blood Diamond might've been made in the 1930s, with its attractive cast on a dangerous safari chasing a MacGuffin — in this case, a beautiful golf-ball-sized pink stone — through the jungle. All that's missing are the pith helmets, as the old Dark Continent clichés remain strong despite a new whitewash of modernist polemics. The film is primarily set in civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone circa 1999 — the year we were riveted by presidential stains on blue dresses. The plot revolves around "conflict diamonds," mined in war zones and moved through the black market to unknowing consumers. The script uses three leads to show different sides of the issue.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives a solid performance and manages another tricky accent as smuggler Danny Archer, a roguish "soldier of fortune" who makes his living off war and misery. And considering the locale, business is booming. He's a charming but slippery devil, with deep ambivalence about his skin tone, his career and his motherland. Though South African by mailing address, Archer makes the curious point of saying he's Rhodesian by birth. His direct moral opposite is the noble Solomon Vandy (Djimon Honsu), a fisherman who discovered and hid the big pink diamond while held captive and forced to work for vicious rebels. He needs to hawk the stone so he can reunite his family. Jennifer Connelly plays Maddie, the intrepid American girl reporter hunting for a Pulitzer. She also carries the exposition workload, giving lectures on the social and political climate and the ravages of unchecked capitalism whenever the action slows down.

Director Ed Zwick specializes in heartfelt, principle-heavy action epics, like the gloriously overwrought Last Samurai, and he surely knows how to get bang for his buck with rich production values, sweeping views and harrowing, violent set pieces. The problem is that this is a big message picture at war with its need to provide action. We hear much about African economic factors and Western indifference, but little of the tribal and religious hatreds that fuel much of the violence. The film makes us hiss at over-the-top bad guys who are cartoonishly nasty, even if they do reflect real live evil.

Honsu is terrific as the movie's moral center, but the heroics are mostly left to DiCaprio, though Archer doesn't quite complete the Han Solo path from scoundrel to idol. His lingering cynicism is distilled into a catchphrase that sums up the irretrievably fucked-up life on the continent: TIA, "This Is Africa." The attempt is noble, but education and entertainment often clash, and as the good intentions get drowned out in gunfire and noisy explosions, it's fair to remember that this is, after all, Hollywood, and the gods of commerce have just been fed another sacrifice.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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