The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blood Diamond

Out of conflict comes the good and the bad.  There are those who try and do something with the idea of accomplishing something good, and then there are others who try to profit from the suffering all around them.  Then somewhere in between are the unwilling and unlucky caught in the middle just fighting to survive.  Based in Sierra Leone in 1999, 2006's Blood Diamond has a character pertaining to each description.

This is an action movie with a message -- an undervalued and under appreciated sub genre in action movies.  Basing a story in war torn Sierra Leone is not the basis for a feel-good, up story, and director Edward Zwick tries to show his story without any unnecessary upbeat feelings.  A repeated line is 'TIA...this is Africa.'  Here's the situation, deal with it.  As government troops battle rebel forces, both sides seek to control the diamond fields where prisoners search for blood diamonds that will be used to fund the fight by buying arms and ammunitions.  Amidst the chaos is the story of three people, a man looking for riches, another searching for his family, and a journalist trying to do something right.

With previous movies like Glory, The Last Samurai, and Defiance, Zwick has proven adept at handling big, sweeping pictures.  Add Blood Diamond to the list because this is a big movie, especially in terms of scale.  The movie was shot in Africa -- benefiting greatly from it -- and gives you a real sense of what surviving amidst a civil war must have been like.  It is a chaotic trip through war-ravaged Sierra Leone with death around every corner.  But for all the brutality and violence, there is a beauty to the movie as Archer and Vandy trek across the expanses of the countryside with the beauty of the nature shining through.  Credit there goes to cinematographer Eduardo Serra and composer James Newton Howard for blending the visual and audio so seamlessly.

It's late in the Sierra Leone Civil War in 1999 and poor fisherman and father Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) has been torn away from his family by rebel forces and forced to work in the diamond mines.  Vandy finds an enormous diamond which he manages to hide as government troops overwhelm the mine, but he's thrown in jail.  There a Rhodesian smuggler and arms dealer, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), hears of his find and arranges Vandy's release. Danny himself was thrown into jail for smuggling diamonds and now owes his boss (Arnold Vosloo) a hefty sum.  Vandy suspiciously agrees to lead Archer to the diamond if he will help him find his family.  With help from a do-good journalist (Jennifer Connelly), Archer agrees and they set off into the chaotic, brutal countryside, the smuggler dreaming of the riches that await him, the fisherman yearning to see his family again.

Since his star-making part in Titanic, DiCaprio has shown an ability to take on some pretty meaty roles and not just playing the romantic lead.  He was nominated for best lead actor here and it's a nomination he really deserved.  His Archer is a bit of a wild card in that it is almost impossible to read him.  Sure, he says he's trying to help Solomon, but he has also shown that he looks out for himself and his own well-being above all else.  This is a 3-D, flesh and blood character that DiCaprio brings to life.  He is a deeply flawed individual with a past that still haunts him.  And on a much lighter note, he gets to do another interesting accent, pulling off a South African accent nicely.  This isn't an easy character to read or root for, but Danny Archer is certainly interesting to watch.

Like DiCaprio, Hounsou was also nominated -- for best supporting actor -- for his part as Solomon Vandy.  I was first introduced to Hounsou with his supporting part in Gladiator and have liked him ever since.  He is able to combine a quiet dignity with emotions that might explode at any minute.  This man is going to do anything he can to ensure the safety of his family.  The scene where he discovers his son has been taken by rebel forces is difficult to watch because we're seeing a man come apart at the seams as the anger and pure hatred coarse through his veins.  It is a great performance and one that matches DiCaprio's powerhouse role.  Connelly's character is nothing new -- a journalist exhausted at the ways of the world who gets a sick thrill from what she's doing -- but she pulls it off well.  Her Maddy could have felt like an add-on to the story, but she ends up playing an important role in the cross country trek.

Like any movie, certain scenes stick with you longer than others.  Looking to examples like Glory (the assault on Fort Wagner) and Last Samurai (the final battle), it's a safe statement to say that Zwick puts together epic action scenes as well as any director around.  They're interesting to watch, but they also resonate emotionally because there's an attachment to the characters and their situation.  Two sequences come to mind here.  One, Archer and Solomon race through city streets as rebel forces invade, and two, an air strike is called in on a rebel camp as Archer and Solomon look for his son and the blood diamond.  Both action set pieces have an enormous scale that is a pleasure to watch, all building to a final chase as they head for an airfield and a plane that will take them to safety.

My complaint here is that Blood Diamond is a long movie at 143 minutes.  It's never dull, and looking back I can't think of scenes I would cut to shorten it.  But it feels really long, like I was watching for much longer than 2.5 hours.  It's hard to put a figure on it because the pacing is all right, and the characters certainly take you for a ride.  Maybe it's just that the story takes a long time to get where it wants to be.  None of this is enough to deter me from recommending it, but it is something that bothered me just the same.  A very good movie all around with great performances and a sweeping story.

Blood Diamond <----trailer (2006): ***/****

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