BLOOD DIAMOND – Blu-ray review

I must bow in admiration for Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio. He could have sold out and used his good looks and early success to become a huge box office star. Instead, DiCaprio has chosen the righteous path and dedicated his career to his craft and making good films and not successful films. If you need a stellar example of what he did not become, simply look at the career of Ben Affleck. After “Titanic,” DiCaprio could have signed on for any big film that came his way. Instead, he followed up with “Celebrity,” “Beaches,” “Gangs of New York,” “Catch Me if You Can,” “The Aviator,” “Departed” and “Blood Diamond.” All are good films and none have been guaranteed box office blockbusters. DiCaprio is an actor who chooses good stories and roles that will earn him accolades and push him as an artist. He is already one of the ‘great ones’ and I look forward to watching him become one of the true Hollywood legends.

“Blood Diamond” earned five Oscar nominations; three of which were technical and the remaining two earning Leonardo DiCaprio a Best Actor nod and Djimon Hounsou a Best Supporting Actor nod. The film was shut out on Academy Awards night, as DiCaprio’s other film “The Departed” took the most little gold statues home. This very powerful film tells the story of African’s illegal blood diamonds; precious stones that are sold by warlords and rebels of African civil wars and conflicts to earn money for guns and obtained by the forceful indentured servitude of slaves. The story looks at the 1999 civil war in Sierra Leone and finds Djimon Hounsou in the role of one of the slaves forced to mine for diamonds and Leonardo DiCaprio as a smuggler of diamonds and arms. The two Oscar nominated actors for their performances in the film are joined by Jennifer Connelly as an American journalist looking to tell the tale of the blood diamonds and the horrid conditions of the citizens of Africa who are killed and forced to bleed to obtain the precious stones.

Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by Revolutionary United Front rebels when he risks his life to save his family from death of capture. Just before he nearly loses his hands to a machete in a hellacious tactic to keep Africans from voting, Vandy is thrown into a truck to work as a slave and obtain diamonds for the RUF soldiers. Vandy finds an enormous pink diamond that is roughly 100 carats in size. As he is hiding the diamond and nearly captured by one of his slavers, the Federal troops raid the slave camp and Vandy is captured by the Federals and put into jail. There he is seen by an imprisoned diamond smuggler, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio). When Archer is freed by his employer Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), he has his cohorts also pay the bail necessary to free Vandy and begin a search for the pink blood diamond.

Journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) has been sharing Guinness beer with Archer; who has a strong physical interest in Bowen, but not enough of an interest to answer her unending questions about the blood diamond trade. In order for Archer to have Vandy lead him to the diamond, Archer must work with Bowen to find his family and place them in safety before Vandy will lead Archer to the slave camp and the location where he hastily hid the immensely valuable rock. During their adventurous journey, Archer and Vandy must escape the rebel assault on Freetown and flee into the jungle. The are constantly avoiding gunfire and always facing danger from Federal troops, RUF rebels and others looking to get their hands on Vandy’s diamond. Archer slowly leaks information to Bowen, in order to get her to assist in his cause and he begins to build a friendship with the leery Vandy.

“Blood Diamond” is a film that tells a powerful tale of real world suffering and danger. The film publicized the blood diamond trade, something that was perpetrated by the civilized world’s thirst for expensive diamond engagement rings and lavish jewelry. Although Archer and Vandy were fictitious characters, the film ends with a conference based upon the factual Kimberly conference that resulted in a 2003 set of regulations that aimed to help curb the blood diamond trade. DiCaprio is excellent as the unlawful and unscrupulous Danny Archer. Djimon Hounsou is another fine actor that has been largely ignored by Hollywood. He is a true leading man and his performance in “Blood Diamond” shows exactly why. The horrendous events and mass murders depicted in the film are events that have actually happened across African and the film deserves some amount of respect for bringing the atrocities to light.

After “Titanic,” I could have cared less about Leonardo DiCaprio. The film that immediately followed that picture for the actor helped give me an impression that he was just another pretty face who wouldn’t amount to much. That film was “The Man in the Iron Mask” and the only true ‘bad film’ ever featuring the actor. DiCaprio had originally caught my attention with his incredible performance in “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and ever since 1998’s “Celebrity,” he has been on one hell of a hot streak. His performance is only one of the strong points of “Blood Diamond.” Both Hounsou and Connelly are good in the film. Along with the stunning and beautiful cinematography, excellent script and solid directing by Edward Zwick, “Blood Diamond” was easily one of the best films of 2006.

The Blu-ray release of “Blood Diamond” is the film’s first foray into the high definition waters. It is a beautifully shot picture and only benefits from being thrust into the world of 1080p resolution. The amazing African vistas and countryside are powerful elements of Edward Zwick’s film and Director of Photography Eduardo Serra has done a brilliant job. The film’s ambitious sequence featuring the assault on Freetown is another visceral visual tour de force and looks exemplary in high definition. The film takes place just a few short years ago, but Africa is still a country without a lot of modern amenities and features thatch hut villages and simple, yet colorful clothing. These ‘primitive’ parts of the world that are ravaged by warfare and depicted in the picture look stunning as well and helps give “Blood Diamond” and epic and powerful look.

The Blu-ray’s transfer is quite stunning at times, but not as visually impressive at other times. The 2.40:1 widescreen presentation features a VC-1 mastered image. Detail is typically very strong and the sweat and imperfections of Djimon Hounsou are some of the most detailed scenes in the film. Another particularly powerful scene is the final scene where Leonardo DiCaprio looks around at the beautiful scenery in front of him is visually strong as well. When the sun is high in the sky, this is a highly colorful and deeply detailed picture. When the sun sets and the imagery becomes dark, higher than normal film grain presents itself and less than stellar black levels. The film’s dark sequences cannot hold up to the film’s better lit moments and keeps “Blood Diamond” from being a top notch visual presentation on the Blu-ray format.

Warner Bros. has once again presented a fine sounding PCM uncompressed soundtrack with one of their releases. The studio has routinely presented Dolby TrueHD mixes on the HD-DVD releases, but have not given the Blu-ray format the same level of love. However, they are slowly including more PCM tracks and “Blood Diamond” is a very nice sounding disc and easily one of the better sounding releases on either the Blu-ray format or the competing HD-DVD release. In addition to the Uncompressed PCM mix, the standard English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and foreign support with French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are also included. However, the PCM mix is far superior to the Dolby Digital mixes and the focus of this review.

This is an aggressive sounding mix that perfectly represents the powerful sound of gunfire and holds up during the most hectic moments. There are a number of combat sequences when rebel forces move against villages and gunfire can easily be heard from every direction. When the RUF clashes with the government troops, the resulting explosions and heavy gunfire assaults the viewer’s listening area with an incredible barrage of sound. In addition to the rear surrounds and three front channels providing a plethora of sounds, the .1 LFE channel is also very active and full of convincing and deep bass. The film’s action sequences are easily some of the best yet to grace the new formats. Dialogue holds up for the full length of the film. Even when the action is the most aggressive, every spoken word can be heard. All-in-all, this is one great sounding disc.

“Blood Diamond” is a feature-laden release that raises a few questions as to how it will be released on HD-DVD. While the film only lists about eight items on its “Special Features” sidebar on the rear packaging of the film, they are lengthy and the one feature is a collection of shorts that will apparently be one of Warner’s In-Movie Experiences. While most of the supplements are menu-based and to be enjoyed after watching the film, a Commentary by Director Edward Zwickis provided to be enjoyed during your viewing experience, although I’d recommend sitting through the film a second time for the insightful and informative commentary by the film’s director. Zwick dives into details about the making of the film, as well as providing informative historical information about the civil war and diamond trade, as well about information on the political and social climates of 1999 Sierra Leone.

The first lengthy extra is Blood on the Stone(50:19). This documentary runs for almost an hour and takes an exhaustive look at a diamond from its mining in Africa until it becomes an expensive consumer product. The documentary features a man named Sorious Samura. He has seen his only family lost during the Sierra Leone conflict and shares his disdain and suffering over diamonds, as well as his thoughts on the Kimberly Process that limits the blood diamond trade. This is a very unflinching and truthful documentary that does not shy away from showing the horrible violence and unrelenting deaths in Africa. Samura is a man with something to say and he is not afraid to say it and show it in this very good documentary.

Becoming Archer (8:34) is a look at the talent that is Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, I’ve become a huge fan of the actor; even considering he has kissed my true love, Kate Winslet. DiCaprio shares his thoughts on Africa, the diamond trade and the child soldiers. Fans of Leo will enjoy this little supplement as I did, but others will think it is simply a promotional vanity piece. Which it is. Journalists on the Front Line (5:15) is Jennifer Connolly’s vanity piece and features the pretty and talented actress discussing the role of female journalists during times of war. This segment was worth a quick look, but not overly deep. Inside the Siege of Freetown (10:33) takes a look at the impressive combat scene where RUF rebels defeat federal troops and takeover the African town. This was a very nice little vignette on the horrific events and the scene used to pay homage to actual events. However it was fast, short and overly promotional in feel. The “Shine on Em” Music Video by Nas and a Theatrical Trailerare also included.

The final bit of bonus materials is a collection of times called Focus Points (46:04). These are short vignettes that were taken as part of a production diary and look at the behind-the-scenes of the making of the film. These twenty three items may be played individually or as a whole via a “Play All” menu selection. These widescreen elements are both letterboxed and pillarboxed due to being mastered on 480p resolution. The bits and pieces of the “Focus Points” were very good and features the cast and crew of “Blood Diamond.” I found some of these twenty three vignettes to be quite entertaining. The press information for the HD-DVD had “Blood Diamond” listed as having an In Movie Experience element. I would assume these vignettes will be assimilated into the HD-DVD In Movie Experience when that disc is released in a few short weeks.

Closing Comments:
Warner Bros. bucks the trend and releases “Blood Diamond” onto Blu-ray before the HD-DVD release. Typically, the HD-DVD release has either been released prior to or concurrently with the Blu-ray title. This is a definite win for the format as “Blood Diamond” is an entertaining, riveting and powerful film featuring the always incredible Leonardo DiCaprio. Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly are fine actors in their own right and their performances are rock solid, but Leonardo is truly the greatest actor of my generation. The story itself is deep and involved and features an unflinching look at the true story of Africa’s “Blood Diamond” trade. A gross number of lives has been lost and even more blood has been shed to sell these illegal diamonds in exchange for arms. The Blu-ray release features good, but problematic visuals. Its soundtrack, however, is one of the best currently available. The Uncompressed PCM 5.1 mix is very good indeed. The supplements are numerous and lengthy and only make this Blu-ray release a harder purchase to pass over. This was one of the best films of 2006 and thus far one of the best Blu-ray releases of 2007.