De Beers, the Johannesburg-based company with a hammerlock on the world's diamond trade, has been waging a PR campaign for months in anticipation of Blood Diamond, a thriller about the wars waged over—and financed by—the precious stones found in African mines. In one sense, De Beers has reason to worry: Though the company officially condemns the trade in "conflict diamonds," the film lays out a convincing case for how a corporation (called Van Der Kaap here) might launder these gems through back channels. Yet Blood Diamond doesn't really convince as a movie: All that juicy information about unsavory industry practices is relegated to a few ham-handed speeches and title cards sprinkled across conventional action-adventure fare. It's the classic case of a filmmaker having a political message, then awkwardly constructing a story around it.
With much of the intensity that carried his performance in The Departed, Leonardo DiCaprio again does strong work as a reluctant hero in Humphrey Bogart mode. Born in Zimbabwe—or "Rhodeeeezia," as he likes to call the former colony—DiCaprio is a diamond smuggler whose mercenary nature arises from a deep cynicism about Africa in general. With Sierra Leone engaged in civil war, DiCaprio trades guns for diamonds with the brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels, who drive citizens into slave labor and recruit armies of dead-eyed child soldiers. After R.U.F. thugs raze his village, kidnap his son, and force him to pan for stones, Djimon Hounsou gains some leverage when he unearths a honking big pink diamond and hides it from his captors. When DiCaprio catches wind of Hounsou's prize, he proposes to help him find his son if Hounsou leads him to the diamond. The third wheel in this scenario is Jennifer Connelly, a freelance journalist who leans on DiCaprio for a big story on conflict diamonds.
Having a hero that trades on human misery sounds like a bold conceit, but Zwick softens up DiCaprio's character at every opportunity, first by providing two noble partners to stir his slumbering conscience, and later by filling in his sobering backstory. Much like Zwick's Glory and The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond strives to be an "important" film while stopping well short of being genuinely provocative and artistically chancy. Basically, Zwick attaches a well-meaning, self-congratulatory message to a cardboard action movie in which Africans are reduced to noble sufferers or collateral damage. Considering they get no share in the diamond trade, perhaps it's only fitting they don't get a share in a movie about it.