Following Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs and most recently The Last King Of Scotland, interest in Africa-based stories among Hollywood's fed and watered appears heightened. Edward Zwick's Blood Diamond, concerned chiefly with the local repercussions for the population of Sierra Leone caused by the illicit international trade in conflict diamonds, has attracted an A-list cast for a film that, on one level, wants to ram home a worthy political message, and on another wants to entertain in the manner of a grand old adventure.
Fisherman Solomon Vande (Djimon Hounsou) experiences civil war up close and personal when rebel militia (led by a terrifying turn from David Harewood as the battle-scarred rebel commander) raid his village and abduct his son Dia and force him to train as a child soldier. Solomon himself is forced to mine for diamonds to pay for the rebels' insurgency, fearing for his life. One day he stumbles upon a rare pink diamond and is able to conceal it, in the hope of using it to get to his son and to buy him freedom from the war-torn continent.
Another very different African man, Zimbabwean ex-mercenary Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), is also after his freedom from "this godforsaken place", as he styles the continent of Africa. He's a classic white African stereotype - he still refers to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia and thinks violence is the only way the blacks understand. By chance Archer hears of the possibility of Solomon's diamond and resolves to get his hands on it so he can escape his edgy existence. The two come into contact and become unlikely partners in a search for the gem.
Into the mix comes Jennifer Connolly, who does the journalism trade a rare favour by taking on the role of an impossibly alluring American hack named Maddy Bowen. Maddy is seeking to expose those at the top of the conflict diamonds trade and Archer is the key to her story, but the ensuing culture clash between the two is almost as pronounced as that between Archer and Solomon. All find themselves weaving a difficult path between the various militia, and it becomes increasingly clear that Archer and Solomon need Bowen as much as she needs them.
In what could easily have become a white man's tale of the dark continent, Djimon Hounsou's mesmerisingly charismatic performance is the human beating heart of the tale. Archer and Bowen, in their way, use the African man as completely as the diamond traders used his graft in the mines, and his continent's minerals, yet all the while Solomon maintains a dignified perspective.
DiCaprio, doing his best to hold his Zim accent throughout, looks the part as the rugged, hard-as-nails military man, and matches Hounsou's screen charisma. Here he is no romantic lead but a conflicted man whose actions are borne of his environment and upbringing as much as any conscious decision on his part to take them. Connolly has less to do with her part, in what is really a man's movie, but she does what she can well.
Stomach-churning war zone cameos include the lopping off of limbs with gay abandon and the terrifying sight of militiamen drinking and raping to the sound of party music. This is not a film that flinches from the very real gore of its location. It is, however, too long. Zwick's noble attempt at making a lecture entertaining for the most part works despite this, and there are enough unexpected twists and turns along the way to keep even hardened cynics guessing.
The script could have tied off a romance between the leads and a happy ending for all concerned, but it chooses a different path; Blood Diamond contains much to be commended, and while it's not the perfect movie it is an important, thought-provoking and highly watchable one.