It seems Hollywood’s eyes have turned to Africa for more than just a quick glance. Long ignored by the industry (and the rest of the world), the continent has recently played host to several recent Hollywood productions (“The Constant Gardener,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Catch a Fire,” etc.). Edward Zwick’s “Blood Diamond” – with its breathtaking cinematography, intense action sequences and sparkling performances – might actually be the best of them all, despite its earnest message-making .

Jonathan Duggan
“Djimon, those would go perfect on our teeth.” (Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

A conventional but powerful tale of survival, “Blood Diamond” tells the story of Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou, “Gladiator”), a poor fisherman who is separated from his family amid the chaos of Sierra Leone’s 1999 civil war. Forced to mine diamonds that finance the bloody conflict, Solomon bides his time, waiting for the chance to rescue his family. He is freed by a mysterious white prospector named Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Departed”), but only so that he can lead Archer to the rare pink diamond that he buried somewhere in the jungle. As the brutal war intensifies around them, it becomes painfully clear that Solomon and Danny might have to sacrifice their lives to reach their goal.

Zwick’s work places “Blood Diamond” more in line with his most splendid hits – “Glory,” “The Last Samurai” – than his abysmal misses (“The Siege”). Though its two-hour, 18-minute runtime pushes the envelope for a tight thriller, every minute of the film serves a purpose and its intense pace never wears thin. Zwick uses breathtaking panoramic views of the East African countryside and James Newton Howard’s fittingly reactive score to guide the story.

Scene by scene, shot by shot, the film is packed with the tension and action of a classic thriller, generally leaving its all-important message as a background lesson that’s hard to ignore. Periodically it is guilty of falling back upon the truth it’s based upon, and while these dangerous lapses into blatant tear-jerking are characteristic of exploitation, “Blood Diamond” treads this line carefully. By the end we get the feeling that the genuine intent here was to call attention to the devastation funded by the conflict diamonds Americans continue to buy – a message that is foolish to ignore out of resignation.

Even considering the gravity of its subject matter and its first-class aesthetics, the strongest asset of “Blood Diamond” is its spectacular performances. Hounsou has been lauded in the past for his work in “Gladiator” and “In America,” but this is by far his best work. The humility and depth he brings to his character – despite having to yell ferociously far too often – is remarkable.

DiCaprio’s performance actually outshines even his co-star. Gone are the throwaway days of “Romeo + Juliet” and “Titanic,” and even the somewhat lacking days of “Gangs of New York.” With Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington aging and Tom Cruise raving about psychology, Leo might just be Hollywood’s foremost leading man. He was impeccable in “The Departed,” and don’t be surprised if he nabs a second Oscar nomination for his gritty, measured and perfectly inflected turn as the tragic soul of Danny Archer. (This is all to say nothing of Jennifer Connelly, who is marvelous as a journalist and the moral mouthpiece of the film, even if she has nothing to do for the majority of the film.)

“Blood Diamond” is a tale of deception, intrigue and mass conspiracy in poor, abandoned Africa – it’s been done before, but the subject certainly hasn’t been exhausted. There is an undeniable truth to what is depicted here; while the war in Sierra Leone is over, child soldiers, mass murder and starvation still flourish upon Africa’s forsaken land. In an unremarkable year for film, this is certainly among the best.

4 out of 5 Stars

Blood Diamond
At the Showcase and Quality 16

Warner Bros.

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