The Truth about the South African Diamond Fields
Augustus F. Lindley
After taking us for an adventure into Japanese history with "The Last Samurai," director Ed Zwick now journeys into post-apartheid 1999 Africa where, in Sierra Leone, a civil war is raging. Though overwritten and slightly misguided, a stimulating action and character script by Charles Leavitt exposes the greed and corruption in the trenches and slick offices of the African diamond trade that underlies so much human misery. It details how the biggest diamond merchants are intimately involved in supporting the conflict. The action is startlingly good, if a bit overwhelming, and the actors come up to all the demands for athletic endurance. A love story between a soldier of fortune and a reporter is a welcome thread along the way.
The story revolves around two men as unalike as any can be, tied together by unlikely strands of greed and devotion to family. Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an independent agent from Zimbabwe, a white African, formerly part of the mercenary army run by The Colonel (Arnold Vosloo, "24"). Highly trained by his former commander, Archer now describes himself as a "soldier of fortune," which, despite a bit of over-romanticism, he is. It shows up in his guerrilla warfare techniques.
The other man is Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), a once-happy Mende fisherman with loving wife Jassie (Benu Mabhena), daughter and teenage son Dia (Caruso Kuypers) whom he sends off to school every day with great pride. This man is dedicated to the proposition that his boy will have better opportunities now that Apartheid is ended, than he, Vandy, ever could. A paragon of decency. And, then everthing goes to hell.
War rages in the form of a rebel army that wants control of the country, starting with the small, undefended villages. When they spring a raid on Vandy's village -- AK-47's and RPG's blazing -- the end result is Dia being taken for retraining as a rebel, Vandy and the remainder of his family being separated, and him almost losing an arm and hand to the cruelty of the rebel commander. But at the last moment this horrendous militant reassesses Vandy as able-bodied enough to be a resource for him at his mining camp where he's put to work as an essential slave along with 50 or so others sifting the river for diamonds.
Finding a rare pink stone in his sifter the size of a hen's egg, he risks his life by burying it and escaping. Later, he winds up in jail where his camp overseer recognizes and publically accuses him of having a surreptitious blood diamond, an accusation that Archer, who happens also to be jailed, overhears and fully believes despite Vandy's stripping down to prove he has no such thing. Archer hasn't ever been this excited about tieing his life together with that of an African black.
A negotiator by training, hooked into the illicit diamond trade, he sees the diamond as a means to get off the continent a very wealthy man. The tradeoff is helping Vandy find and rescue his family, a very tricky enterprise. Figuring into it is gorgeous (not an adequate word) Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), reporter, who all but picks him up in a bar when she hears his conversation with the bar owner. The sexual tension between these two is a shower of sparks and they're held apart by their conflicting agendas. All the better.
The two men fight their way through jungles and towns as Zwick uses attacks from government troops and rebels as act bridges and seguees between scenes as leitmotifs in a symphony. It's far too repetitive an device, appropriate though it may be, and, to his credit, the action is consistently intense with bullets, bombs and blood-splashing wounds of such number and variety that an army of special effects men setting squibs and controlled explosions must have been kept busy for weeks. The physicality the main actors happily put themselves through has to be considered admirable.
Gun-toting DiCaprio is impressively uncompromising, commanding in his role. There's a certain Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. dynamic here. Though this role might well compete with his undercover cop in "The Departed," it's not likely to draw much away from what I think will be considered the more impressive role but, let's face it: DiCaprio is turning in power performances.
Connelly, admittedly one of my personal faves since "Dark City," doesn't always get a role that allows her this level of energetic involvement and sheer sensuality. Zwick uses it perhaps too obviously when he has her dressed revealingly for the lens rather than for the realities on the ground but, I confess, I enjoyed every brief screen moment of her very womanly endowments.
Honsou is stalwart, unbending, and totally admirable as a man we'd be glad to have in our lives. This is a role he fits into with all the muscle and mindfulness he has at his disposal, and that is plenty. In terms of story arc, it's his presence that works a spell of conscience and awareness over that of his unwanted partner who starts out as an empty moral vessel but learns to fill it with newly discovered values.
There is, of course, a little too much of everything. The search for Vandy's family is way too drawn out, requiring so many variations on the theme of traipsing through jungle and over mountain and dodging bullets that it doesn't seem like variation any longer. In this way, the movie seems to lose itself on the trail, drawing power and sharpness away from the morality side of the tale, which is an important expose' of the rich diamond merchants whose disregard for ethics is the root of evil.
The beauty of the landscape is a valuable asset to the film along with the varying textures of humanity, showcasing considerable artistry on screen. Not the smallest contribution is Eduardo Serra's tireless camerawork. If only there were a trade in story discipline.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals