Respectfully weaving a fictional action-adventure narrative within a tumultuous nonfictional time and place is a daunting proposition for any filmmaker. 2006’s Blood Diamond is an attempt at such a premise, as its fictitious story is framed around the real-life turmoil of Sierra Leone in the 1990s. Fortunately, veteran filmmaker Edward Zwick was more than capable of handling this type of material, skilfully breathing cinematic life into Charles Leavitt’s ambitious script. Far more thoughtful than your average blockbuster, Blood Diamond is several things: an arresting action-adventure thriller, a searing indictment of the greed of big businesses, and a history lesson which explores South Africa’s unscrupulous diamond trade. Zwick nailed every one of these genres, all the while maintaining interest through immaculate filmmaking and a handful of sublime performances.

In war-ravaged Sierra Leone, peaceful fisherman Solomon Vandy (Hounsou) lives with his family and hopes to keep his loved ones safe from the country’s continuing conflicts. When vicious rebels tear Solomon’s village apart, however, the father is forced away from his family and is sent to be a slave in the diamond fields. While working, he unearths an extremely valuable pink diamond, and manages to bury it before the military move into the area. When in prison, Solomon draws the attention of Rhodesian ex-mercenary Danny Archer (DiCaprio) who specialises in the smuggling of conflict diamonds. Hearing of Solomon’s discovery, Archer bails the frightened African out of prison hoping to use him to find the stone. With Danny promising to help Solomon find his family in exchange for the diamond, a hesitant partnership emerges. Into this mix soon steps American journalist Maddy Bowen (Connelly), who’s in the country to conduct research for a story about the conflict diamond trade.

Blood Diamond clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes, yet it doesn’t feel too long – the film has enough momentum to keep us engaged as it gives both the character work and the narrative the breathing room that they needed. As the story progresses and as plot twists unfold, you get drawn deeper and deeper into the picture; you grow to care about Solomon and Archer, and you want to see the men succeed at their respective goals. Indeed, Blood Diamond is, at its core, a provocative human story. Miraculously, the film additionally explores the brutality of the conflict diamond trade with unflinching realism without the stench of exploitation, as such material serves to add compelling dramatic weight to the narrative. Plus, there’s a level of complexity to the characters which make Blood Diamond more intelligent than your usual good guys vs. bad guys action flick. Once the end credits roll, it’s virtually impossible to forget the harrowing images portrayed here, and viewers are left to think about the truth behind the shameful workings of the profitable diamond industry that are too often simply swept under the rug.

Produced for a sizable $100 million, Blood Diamond looks sublime. Zwick shot the film on location in Mozambique and other areas of Africa, affording a visceral, authentic atmosphere that’s impossible to achieve on a sterile set or a crisp digital environment. Furthermore, Zwick is a superlative director, and his action sequences and shootouts are frequently exhilarating (a phenomenal large-scale battle at an R.U.F. camp involving a helicopter is a highlight). It’s also amazing that a movie of such grand scope was bold enough to be R-rated. Thus, Blood Diamond refuses to skimp on the harrowing details. The violent depiction of everyday conflicts in Sierra Leone may seem exploitative, but the violence is never gratuitous; instead, Zwick merely chose to avoid sugar-coating or dumbing down the nasty details. My word, the vivid sequences here of child soldiers being dehumanised through training and killing innocent people are not something you will easily forget. This type of stuff really happens, and Zwick sought to highlight this fact for oblivious Westerners.

In his thirties now, Leonard DiCaprio’s pretty-boy appearance is fast wearing off, replaced with a face of ruggedness, wisdom and character, all traits of which make him perfect for the role of Danny Archer. DiCaprio was called upon to espouse a tricky area-specific Zimbabwean accent, and he nailed it. You really do believe DiCaprio – he doesn’t sound like an actor forcing an unnatural voice; he truly looks, sounds and feels like the real deal. Better yet, DiCaprio’s intensity is spot-on. Indeed, he definitely deserved the Oscar nomination that he received. Alongside him, Djimon Hounsou (who was also nominated for an Oscar) is earnest and convincing as Solomon Vandy. Hounsou brought his trademark intensity to the role, and effectively mixed it with nobility and gravitas. It’s a faultless piece of acting. Rounding out the main players is Jennifer Connelly who easily convinces as dedicated reporter Maddy Bowen, and a terrific Arnold Vosloo who plays Archer’s superior.

All things considered, Blood Diamond is enthralling and insightful big-budget cinema. On top of its ace technical credits and the magnificent acting, the flick additionally possesses a sense of humanity as its goes about its business (it’s hard to hold back tears during a late scene when Solomon is forced to confront his son who was brainwashed by rebels). Blood Diamond is a film which successfully entertains as it educates, and it features one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s greatest performances to date.

9.2/10