The more I see of their work, the more I realise that directors Ed Zwick and Sam Mendes have one thing very sharply in common - both are filmmakers who make movies that they think are far more important than they actually are. From Mendes' "American Beauty" and "Jarhead" to Zwick's "The Last Samurai" and "The Siege", the pair create very engrossing vehicles that nevertheless are somewhat preachy, self-important, and noble yet misfired attacks at the injustice of their subject matter.
Whereas Mendes is an arty director trying to sink down into more mainstream levels, Zwick is first and foremost a solid mainstream entertainer trying to hit us over the head with a well-intentioned but oversimplified message. "Blood Diamond" is Zwick's latest and contains all his traits - an exotic locale that's beautifully shot, strong performances throughout, an upfrontness about the harshness of life, and superbly filmed action sequences ranging from a truck escape through dense foliage to a truly spectacular helicopter gunship attack on a rebel base.
DiCaprio delivers a performance equally as good, in some ways better, than his recent "Departed" work as a smuggler from Zimbabwe out to get rich. One has to appreciate the fact that here is a believable, morally dubious fortune hunter who won't let good intentions get in the way of him making a quick buck - and never forgets that throughout. On the other hand, despite that darker edge, he's a relatively predictable character despite an appealing and believable character arc - and he's the deepest one in the film by far.
Stuck in a flat 'noble savage' role, Djimon Hounsou is able to bring a strong level of respect, urgency, determination and empathy as the father who loses his family to slaughter and his son to conditioning by brutal rebels. Connelly radiates an appealing beauty as always in the role of a journalist trying to expose the conflict diamond trade to the world. Whilst her banter with DiCaprio is essentially a grossly simplified education in the exploitation of Africa by pretty much everyone, there is a surprisingly strong chemistry between the two which makes their scenes together highly enjoyable.
In spite of its high gloss though the film is never able to blend its narrative and themes together very well, resulting in moments where things stop dead to give a lecture. Even then the lectures seem somewhat focused more on the control of Africa by the white colonials over the years and less about the tens of millions of native Africans who've died on that soil. The film never shies away from showing the brutality of the time and place such as the frequent mutilations, torture and disturbing child soldier indoctrination.
Add to that Zwick's trademark weak points - a far too long runtime with a problematic third act, uneven pacing, and an attempt to encompass way too much subject matter rather than focus on one specific aspect. That last one, generally dealing with a corrupt British diamond house run by Michael Sheen, is not well handled at all and draws out the already film far too long.
These are all editing and scripting issues though which should have been worked out beforehand as otherwise Zwick's film is smartly constructed, expertly shot and engaging. The man definitely knows how to make a great looking and sounding motion picture, get good work out of his actors, and his want of a compelling issue for his stories is noble. Yet he needs sharper, shorter, more focused and better balanced ones than this engaging and smart but ultimately forgettable drama.