“T.I.A.,” mutters Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), slouched across a bar in Sierra Leone. It is 1999. As the West obsesses over Clinton’s blowjob, the West African nation is mired in a savage civil war. Our hero, a world-weary soldier of fortune, has struck up a conversation with Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a foxy idealist reporting on the blood-diamond trade for an American newsweekly. As the ground operative of a vast conspiracy to exploit the country’s unrest in the harvesting of precious stones, Danny holds the key to her story—holds it, most conveniently, in a little red notebook he keeps tucked against his cold black heart.
T.I.A., baby. Danny sizes up the lady journalist with his jaded blue eyes. They have witnessed too much on the dark continent to shed a tear. Apartheid, civil war, tribal conflict, human slaughter, global indifference, unquenchable hatred, unimaginable cruelty—yes . . . this is Africa!
Well, yes and no. It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue the same way, but a more appropriate acronym in this case would go something like T.I.A.P.U.O.M.A.A.C.Y.W.B.T.T.S.S.O.B.W.P.W.S.H.A.T.I.G.R.B.S.T.W.N.A./O.V.A.: This Is Africa Propped Up Once More As A Colorful Yet Wrenching Backdrop To The Stupid Story Of Boring White People Whose Sham Heroics Are Thrown Into Greater Relief By Surrounding Them With Noble And/Or Vicious Africans.
Directed by Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) from a screenplay by the author of that legendary sociopolitical treatise K-PAX (Charles Leavitt), Blood Diamond assembles three refugees from central casting around the quest for an egg-sized pink diamond. When Revolutionary United Front rebels rampage through his village, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is wrenched from his family and put to work mining diamonds. Pulling what looks like a giant, rusty crack pipe from the river, Solomon retrieves the rock and sets about hiding it when government soldiers bust in and cart everyone off to jail. Word of the diamond soon reaches Danny, himself imprisoned for the possession of criminally ridiculous blond highlights, and a scheme is hatched to get rich or die trying.
The holy trinity of African adventure-flick clichés—the amoral mercenary, the righteous native, the idealistic reporter—is soon completed by the arrival of Maddy, and everyone heads off into the picturesque jungles, slums, and refugee camps of war-torn Sierra Leone. Endless stretches of witless torpor are interrupted by jarring assaults of violence; the bland Oscar bait of
the season bristles to life only at the touch of mass murder. Workmanlike at best, Zwick’s generic epic chops show newfound verve whenever there’s a deadly set piece to mount: eight-year-old RUF agents mowing down women with AK-47s, innocents shredded to pieces in the crossfire, limbs severed, buildings detonated, cars aflame, shrapnel whizzing through flesh.
It’s remarkable that a movie presumably opposed to Western exploitation of Africa exhibits a heartbeat only when slaughtering its anonymous, dark-skinned extras. To be sure, there’s splendid momentum to the havoc here, a real thrill in the quickness of death leaping from the jungle, machine gun fire rattling through the ominous bass of gangsta rap. Such excitements would be less unsettling had their spark lit on any larger idea than “Whoa, shit is messed up in Africa.” If Zwick and Leavitt intend to draw any parallel with American city life—the crack pipe in the river, the dropping of the word bling—it gets smothered in the tedium of an oppressively cornball script.
De Beers can relax; the only indignation stirred up by Blood Diamond won’t be among those who worry about where their jewelry came from, but with audiences incensed by facile politics and bad storytelling. “You might catch a minute of this on CNN,” says Maddy of the surrounding horrors, “between sports and weather.” After she is confronted by the spectacle of a million refugees, her voice gathers gravitas and declares, “It’s a like a whole nation has gone . . . homeless.” Connelly is so ready for her “I Am African” poster.