' ' Cinema Romantico: Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond: A Great Performance In A Bad Movie

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond: A Great Performance In A Bad Movie

(Warning: Extreme length ahead. Proceed at your own peril.)

When I initially reviewed Edward Zwick's 2006 thriller "Blood Diamond" for the purposes of this blog I gave it a stellar review. I took a lot of flack for this and, as time has gone by, I came to the realization the flack-givers were on the right side of the fence. (I'll admit when I'm wrong. I don't work for Fox News.) This is not a great movie. This is not really even a good movie. Certainly there are plot holes, if you look, but plot holes really don't interest me as a moviegoer. On the other hand the film is intent to stuff its politicized messages on the trafficking of blood diamonds in our faces and down our throats, particularly in the closing scenes, and the supporting characters are all woefully underdeveloped and there are far too many subplots for the movie's good. Some of these subplots - such as the son of Noble Sidekick Solomon Vandy (Djimon Honsou) brainwashed into being a rebel soldier is essential, hard-hitting subject matter that deserves a different movie to showcase it. Most of "Blood Diamond" is far too soft for what it is trying to say. So why in the world did I think so highly of it at the time? Two words (which I've already given away in the title):

Leonardo DiCaprio.

He is Danny Archer, "a soldier of fortune" (his words, which he instantly counters with "or is that too much of a cliche?"), enlisted into the South African army at a young age and now a hard bitten, fearless diamond smuggler who in his opening scenes is arrested for smuggling a few precious stones across the Sierra Leone border. Of course, that's part of the problem. These opening scenes appear a full 9 minutes into the film.

Can an actor still give a great performance amidst narrative overflow and gas station coffee characters and messages lighting up the night sky? Sure. Why the hell not? It was DiCaprio's extraordinary turn, in fact, that fooled me the first time. Well, I won't get fooled again. (Is that how it goes?) I have used this quote of the esteemed Roger Ebert before but it's fantastic and so I will employ it again: "Maybe actors should be given Oscars not for the good films they triumph in, but for the weak films they survive." Amen, brother. "Blood Diamond" stinks but Leo still gives the best performance of his career.

(Before we go any further, one key note is DiCaprio's accent, to which I simply say this.)

Sitting forlornly in his jail cell Archer learns of an enormous diamond his cellmate Solomon had found and hid. This could be Archer's ticket off the continent. Naturally, like the cannonball run, everyone else in the movie is hot on the trail of this diamond, too. Who will get to it??? Archer gets out and then gets Solomon out, too, in an attempt to partner up with Solomon to track down this mother of all diamonds. First, though, Archer has to stop off at a lovely beachside bar for a beer and a shot - he's a soldier of fortune, after all - and to purchase a handy firearm where he happens upon the attractive American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) who puts to use her feminine wiles in an attempt to glean definitive info on Archer's trade. Yeah, yeah, I hear you, the scene is like chicken stock. But not really. Not if you look closely. First, in the face of mostly on-the-nose dialogue it actually has my favorite lines of the whole film.

Archer: "I'm from Rhodesia."
Maddy: "We say Zimbabwe now, don't we?"
Archer: "Do we?"

I freaking LOVE that little exchange. I think the real heart of the movie, the heart that Zwick and writer Charles Leavitt choose to remove for the sake of a different heart, is contained in those lines. Of course fearful that audiences won't get the message from those lines the rest of the scene surrounding them takes great care to spell it all out, such as when Archer declares "You come here with your laptop computers, your malaria medicine and you little bottles of hand sanitizer and think you can change the outcome, huh?"

(Parenthetical Tangent: Why? Why have writers gotta do that? Didn't Leavitt realize the former set of lines said precisely what the latter line says without "saying" it? Dude writes brilliant lines and then completely undercuts them himself. Unbelievable.)

So yeah, most of the scene seems heavy handed on the surface but watch how DiCaprio plays it, like it's a speech he's given hundreds of times - "Don't tell me you're here to make a difference?" - a speech he specifcally employs at any sign of an attractive foreign journalist. They're pick-up lines. His face has a cocky glow, a cocky glow faintly similar to Bogart's when he used go all soldier of fortune on the ladies because he knew that's what they wanted. This is how an actor transcends material.

So eventually rebel soldiers will invade the capital of Sierra Leone and Archer and Solomon will team up so that Archer can help Solomon find his family who have been displaced and, in turn, Solomon can help Archer find the diamond. Eventually they will enlist the aid of Maddy who will enlist the inside info of Archer on the blood diamond trade so she can write up her blow-the-roof-off-the-place story. "I am using him and you are using me and this is how it works," Archer says to her. At least it should be how it works. Another unfortunate flaw of the film is an attempt to lionize Maddy when it would have been bolder and more effective to have her he a defiant, shall we say, journalist of fortune (ah?). One of DiCaprio's best moments is when Connelly gives the requisite impassioned speech as she attempts to concoct her story - "It might make some people cry if they read it, maybe even write a check, but it's not going to be enough to make it stop!" - and when she finishes he gets this awesome kind of bemused smirk, waits a beat and then says "Wow" and then laughs. This reaction pairs with a much earlier moment when he leaves prison and a Sierra Leone, shall we say, trick-turner advertises herself by claiming "No HIV" to which Archer retorts "Yeah, yeah, I've heard that one before." When Maddy gives the requisite impassioned speech that little reaction of his essentially is saying "Yeah, yeah, I've heard that one before." He can see through any and all of the bulls--- and he'll bulls--- right back, which he then does. This guy is adverse to patriotism and dismissive of good deeds.

Later this trio will wind up at a school for African children taken back from the rebels which is meant to illuminate the good being done amidst all the violence and to allow for a shot of Maddy nobly listening to children read but DiCaprio remains insistent on not being transformed. Make no mistake, I think the screenplay's intent to have him start on the road to transformation but Leo chooses to keep this intent at arm's length. Kudos to him. There is just a wonderful moment when Archer and Maddy are discussing their past, as they must, and Archer says something like "And then it's 1994 and the end of apartheid, truth and reconciliation and all that rubbish." This brief moment suggests so, so much lurking beneath the surface, such a rich, complicated character waiting to be unearthed that never is.

After this encounter they will eventually make their way to a convoy evacuating all non military personnel from the area as Archer's former commander, Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Voosloo), has been contracted to take out the rebels. Of course, Coetzee also wants the requisite enormous diamond for himself and enlists the help of Archer and Solomon who naturally flee the premises to go after the diamond alone. Again, the scenes priro to this are critical. Maddy shows affection for Archer who asks her to distract a soldier so he can steal necessary supplies and then the Tearful Goodbye and so on and so forth and this all meant to further underscore the transformative journey of Archer but watch carefully as he and Solomon enter the jungle and instantly Archer reverts to his former self as he gives Solomon non-negotiatable orders. Then, in a tense moment after Solomon thinks he has his seen his son and risks his and Archer's life, Archer vehemently declares: "You risk my life like that again and I'll peel your face back off your head." All this has to make you wonder if Danny has really seen the light or if he was just using Maddy to get to what he needed and to get to where he needed to go.

And then the all important finale. Once the routine, and seemingly endless action scenes, of Colonel Coetzee leading the attack and all that rubbish have played out and he and Archer and Solomon have found the diamond and Solomon's son and Archer has shot and killed Coetzee this leaves Archer, Solomon and Solomon's son to flee with the requsite enormous diamond in tow to rendezvous with a helicopter for an escape. Archer almost immediately orders Solomon to give him the diamond. Hesitantly, Solomon does, and the look on Archer's face in this moment is amazing. I vividly remember in the theater in that half second thinking to myself: "Holy s---. Archer's gonna kill him." Now I don't think I'm giving away anything, especially considering it's an Edward Zwick film, when I advise that Archer, in fact, doesn't kill Solomon but dies himself from a gun shot taken during the quarrel with Coetzee.

Obviously Leavitt had in his mind all the time for Archer to die and by doing so assume an air of nobility. But the way DiCaprio plays it suggests otherwise. As his wound worsens Solomon ends up carrying him up, up the hill and finally Archer shouts, "No more! No more!" The line reading suggests two meanings. Not just the unyielding pain but this way of life. He's done. He's had it with living like this. No more, no more. And then he gives Solomon the diamond back and tells him to get his son out. Only at the point of dying, to use the words of Charles Bronson in "Once Upon A Time In The West", does Archer finally, truly do a good deed. And it's here, and not a moment sooner, that Archer realizes that while the whole time he has been trying to get out of Africa, Africa is where he should be.

That said, Leavitt yet again is fearful the audience will not understand this sentiment and pounds his hammer over our heads with that brutal phone call Archer places to Maddy on the side of the mountain while under gunfire so he can say aloud "I'm right where I'm supposed to be" when all we needed was the shot of Archer laying there and running the sand through his fingers, pairing with a shot earlier in the film, that would have said the exact same thing much more beautifully and economically. And this symbolizes all of "Blood Diamond" really.

Read between the lines - and, I grant you, there are lot of lines to read between - and you will see a fully realized performance that, much like the character itself, goes its own way with its own agenda. DiCaprio's work here is screaming out to be treated more justly, to be given a better film, a much, much, much more streamlined film that made he and his journey the sole focus and allowing the deeper meaning to be revealed through his journey. It would have been easy. Zwick and Leavitt made it hard. And wasted a little bit of sheer leading man brilliance in the process. All so we could know that blood diamonds are bad. Which we already knew.


Andrew K. said...

I am completely taking credit for this post. Blood Diamond is vague in my head, until I read this and I remember it perfectly. It brings back bad memories of that bizarre 2006 Oscar race -not just lead actor, but every category really - and I remember Blood Diamond popping up and me seeing Jennifer Connelly and going ugh, because NO I never will get over how much she bored me in A Beautiful Mind.

I digress, though. Leo's performance was a breath of fresh air. For one, I didn't think it's a role that suits him (I always imagine Ewan McGregor killing it in the role) but his ability to avoid schmaltz was praiseworthy, and I couldn't even be mad at that final phone-call for all its obviousness. Even if I still wish he'd been nominated for The Departed, but that's blood under the bridge.

Nick Prigge said...

You absolutely deserve credit for this post. I mean, it had been simmering in me for quite awhile but it definitely would not have been typed had it not been for your post.

And is it bad that I had to go to Google to remember who won that Best Actor race? Forest Whitaker, I guess, didn't stay with me at all but Leo, as evidenced by this insanely long post, did. I liked "The Departed" but I still back "Blood Diamond."

Andy Buckle said...

I don't remember Blood Diamond being that bad. I must have been fooled by Leo's performance too. Dare I watch it again? I'm with Andrew though, I think his work in The Departed 'just' tops this. Nice post though.

Nick Prigge said...

You know, it's strange, but I would recommend that you do watch it again. Now, that means you will like the movie LESS but you will like Leo even MORE. If you can handle the trade-off, go for it!

Unknown said...

A very great performance in a mediocre film. Yes that was beneath the reality. Script was at times brilliant. Leo's accent was remarkable

Amaterasu said...

The movie told an important tale about contemporary war and violence, corruption in the name of dollars for diamonds, cults and grooming of young soldiers. Though the movie connoisseur will be able to find fault, I think we all agree Di Caprio's performance carried it through. Transparently Hollywood in how the fisherman was noble in his suffering ~ same for Di Caprio's suffering too ~ but - I am so grateful that this film was made to tell the story of those who suffered and still do, in Africa. (not all victims are nice people ~ that's a tale that Hollywood never tells, and it didn't in this one, either)

anthonyalfredwhite said...

An excellent summation. I dig you entirely.