DeCaprio is Back In the Running with Blood Diamond
Blood Diamond is a terrific bit of genre entertainment from Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, The Siege, and the somewhat laughable Tom Cruise vehicle The Last Samurai. However, if you are looking for a serious treatment of controversial subject matter—illegal slave labor diamond mining in South Africa—this may not be the movie for you. Blood Diamond isn’t so much a political drama with action sequences (even if Zwick believes that’s what he’s making) as an action thriller with a convenient political backdrop to lend it some urgency and gravitas. It’s a movie, after all, and if Syriana is anything to go by—which was so utterly incomprehensible critics had no choice but to praise it—then politics and cinema simply don’t mix. Blood Diamond is considerably more poignant and moving than your average action thriller, however, and this is mostly due to Leonardo DeCaprio giving his first grown-up performance, as the embittered, hardened, and resourceful diamond smuggler Danny Archer.
In his earliest roles—the young retard in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Robert DeNiro’s battered son in This Boy’s Life, The Basketball Diaries, The Quick and the Dead, and as the young Rimbaud in Total Eclipse—DeCaprio was shaping up to be one of the most exciting actors since the young Robert DeNiro. But then something went wrong. He became a megastar with Titanic and got all buffed up for The Beach, and with his thick neck and his small round head, his Dr. Spock eyebrows and pallid skin, he began to look like he’d got stuck somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. As a result, he seemed miscast in the adult roles he was given (most of all as Howard Hughes), as if the qualities that made him such a mesmerizing actor as an adolescent made him almost uncastable as an adult. In his work for Scorsese especially (Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed), he seemed to lack any substance or weight as an a actor, and he was a negligible presence. (The exception was Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, in which DeCaprio’s guilelessness and elfin features—his apparent immaturity—fitted well enough with the Walter Mitty-ish role.)
For Blood Diamond, DeCaprio assumes a thick, rather endearing South African accent and gives an impressive performance of contained intensity and depth. For the first time since those early roles, he seems to be tapping the reserves of his talent. If in his last few performances he seemed to be coasting, here he has apparently come to full attention. All of a sudden his acting is full of surprises—of small, almost throwaway touches, the kind of moments that create a fully formed, deeply affecting character. With this role, DeCaprio has rediscovered his instinct for acting—so formidable in those early roles—and with it his passion. Without him, Blood Diamond would be a so-so political thriller; with him, it’s something more poignant and memorable.
Jennifer Connelly doesn’t fare quite so well, alas, in an underwritten part as the conscience-driven journalist. In her early scenes, Connelly is poorly directed and too heavily made up (beauty like this doesn’t need make up); she appears to be overplaying to compensate for the lack of a character, and for some unfathomable reason she is practically salivating over DeCaprio. Later, she is more contained, and has some affecting moments. She does the best she can with this earnest, two-dimensional role, that of the dedicated journalist/free spirit torn between conscience and ambition.
The main role really belongs to Djimon Hounsou as the noble black man trying to find his family, and Hounsou’s Solomon is a powerful presence, the heart of the film. As an actor, he’s the ideal complementary presence for DeCaprio’s edgy, ruthless egotism, and together they make the most unlikely (and touching) of friendships. This is all familiar stuff, of course, and besides the performances and the political back story, there’s nothing really new about Blood Diamond—just another blood thriller dressed up as a tale of government corruption and personal redemption. But it’s an exemplary model—a muscular action movie with heart (if not brains) as well as brawn.