December 6-12, 2006

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'Blood Diamond'

Photograph by Jaap Buitendijk
Gem brokers: Djimon Hounsou helps Leonardo DiCaprio shoulder the white-man's burden in 'Blood Diamond.'

Africa Screams

'Blood Diamond' is a cinch to win the 2006 Bad Hemingway competition

By Richard von Busack

THERE ARE some who will take Blood Diamond seriously, on the grounds that it has a true-life, tragic subject. Thus it is all the more important to identify the film for what it really is: overblown, overlong garbage in which the moral center, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), is posed like an editorial cartoonist's image of "Suffering Africa."

Hounsou has the physique of a demigod and a deep, ragged voice. And if he wrung hearts in Amistad by shouting, "Give us free!," here he gets to bellow for his wife and child through a refugee-camp fence. The guard hits him with a rifle butt, once, twice. Solomon's white companions must restrain the mighty man before he gets seriously hurt.

Overlaid with a rich chalky layer of white guilt as it is, Blood Diamond still can't help turning Hounsou into yet another symbol of exuberant emotions, immense, unchanneled strength and good-natured honesty—an image of Africa: simple, unrefined and ultimately childish. The filmmakers tie themselves in knots trying to make the two heroes a pair of equal buddies, but the old-time adventure script renders Solomon into what he would have been 50 years ago: a sidekick.

The real lead—the one who gets the more ostensibly subtle scenes, that is—is Leonardo DiCaprio. Here is the actor you turn to when you want a ferret instead of Tom Cruise's chipmunk. DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, an unreconstructed Rhodesian gunrunner who doesn't care for the word "Zimbabwe." In 1999, Archer trades rifles for diamonds and smuggles the stones out of war-torn Sierra Leone over the hills to Liberia.

Archer learns of a pink diamond of some 100 carats, buried far over the hills. Solomon had discovered the gem. He was a coastal fisherman, but then the civil war reached his village. Soldiers kidnapped his son to become a child-army guerrilla, and Solomon was temporarily enslaved as a diamond miner. Right before the army attacked the mining camp, Solomon hid the priceless stone. He hopes to use the money to spring his family from a refugee center.

Archer accompanies Solomon to help find the gem and, we can imagine, to double-cross the huge fisherman as soon as he gets a chance. The stone has a buyer already, Archer's former comrade-in-arms and now his boss, the Colonel (Arnold Vosloo from the Mummy movies). Even under heavy threat of trouble if he cuts the Colonel out of the deal, we can tell that Archer will learn compassion from his travels. Actually, a minor character tells Archer he's on a road to God, so we have the road map before us—soon a cleansing, then a finale lifted from Hemingway.

Director Edward Zwick, returning to the heart-on-his-sleeve spirit of his days on TV's thirtysomething, has the best intentions and the worst methods. True, Zwick handles the horror of child soldiers with all due feverishness, giving us a montage containing images like a child's eyes fluttering as a needle full of heroin strikes home.

But so much more of Blood Diamond is thoroughly based on other African adventure movies about the White Man's Grave. Though the script and story (with C. Gaby Mitchell) is by Charles Leavitt (K-PAX), there isn't a scene here that F. Scott Fitzgerald's hack screenwriter Pat Hobby couldn't have turned out as long as you gave him six hours' notice and a bottle of rye.

For example, we must sit through Archer's monologue about his days in the South African Army ("There was no apartheid in foxholes"), not to mention his backstory about how his parents were ambushed by guerrillas. DiCaprio delivers all the speeches that used to be given by the Southerner in a Western—the Southerner who wasn't a slaveholder but who was fighting for the land the damn Yankees were trying to take from him.

Jennifer Connelly plays Maddy, the usual adventure-movie journalist: the embittered kind, upset by the knowledge that no matter what she does her editors will just relegate it to "two minutes between the sports and the weather." Connelly's contractually obligated weeping scene comes along like clockwork. Be thankful for small favors; at least it's not the scene of the school full of singing orphans that causes her tears.

Zwick would have a better argument about Western journalists who glom onto conflict for the sake of conflict if he weren't such a slack-jawed war-movie fanatic himself. The scenes of Archer and Solomon running from the siege of Freetown or the lovingly slo-mo helicopter strike on a riverside rebel camp could have been cut and pasted from any paramilitary movie with lots of explosions in it.

Blood Diamond's views of Africa are everything we've seen and heard before: the same sun simmering on the same veldt, seething in a tepid bath of James Newton Howard's music and, ultimately, as in The Last King of Scotland, the same small plane flying away from the homicidal natives. Trying to deprogram his son the child soldier, Solomon intones: "The cows wait for you." The cows might be waiting, but smelling this movie, one would guess the bull had come and gone already.

Movie Times Blood Diamond (R), directed by Edward Zwick, written by Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell, photographed by Eduardo Serra and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly, opens Dec. 8.

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