BLOOD DIAMOND - HD DVD review

Blood Diamond remains worth watching, especially in its new HD trim and with its added bonus features.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Warner Bros. usually release their HD DVD and Blu-ray titles simultaneously, but with "The Matrix" and "Blood Diamond," they handled it differently. They released "The Matrix" in HD DVD well in advance of the Blu-ray edition, and they released "Blood Diamond" in Blu-ray several weeks ahead of the HD DVD version. For HD DVD fans, the wait for "Blood Diamond" is well worthwhile, as the HD DVD edition contains an "In-Movie Experience" that should delight anybody interested in movie extras, plus some fancy Internet connections. It makes a good thing even better.

The term "Blood Diamond" refers to several things. First, it refers to any diamond mined during a civil strife and sold to help finance a rebel army (thus, its alternative reference as a conflict or war diamond). Second, it refers to the 2006 Warner Bros. movie of the same name. Third, it refers to a specific diamond in the movie, a rare pink gem of immense value.

The movie did fairly good box office but probably not nearly as well as WB would have liked, given that it cost around $100,000,000 to make and took in about $56,000,000. I have a theory about that. "Blood Diamond" is at once a serious "message" drama and an action thriller, in the process possibly turning off some of the followers of both genres. I have a hunch that many fans of action films prefer that they contain a healthy dose of escapism--at least a touch of fantasy or the preposterous, a Terminator or a Bond--and fewer thematic lessons. But "Blood Diamond" is too moralistic for that. On the other hand, fans of straight drama may not appreciate the sheer volume of violence, fighting, and death in the movie. It's a shame because "Blood Diamond" is at heart a decent movie, and it may have been a case of its trying to do too much. But enough of idle speculation; let's get on with the film.

We have it now on HD DVD, and viewers can easily judge its merits for themselves. Director Edward Zwick ("Last Samurai," "Glory"), who enjoys hanging messages on his big-budget epics, put this one together from recent headlines, and Leonardo DiCaprio (who seems to be in every other big-budget movie these days), the dynamic Djimon Hounsou, and the multitalented Jennifer Connelly star. Ironically, perhaps, it's Zwick's eye for landscape and the actors' dedication to their roles that largely carry the picture, rather than its action or themes.

The fictional plot takes place in 1999 in the very real strife of western Africa's Sierra Leone, where, as the preface tells us, "Civil war rages for control of the diamond fields. Thousands have died and millions have become refuges. None of whom has ever seen a diamond."

The story line involves two men, whose stories begin separately but soon merge. The first is Solomon Vandy (Hounsou), a humble fisherman whose village rebel forces attack, capturing him and his family. They separate them, sending him, his wife, and his daughter to work in various diamond fields and his son to fight in their insurgent army. While in the fields, Solomon finds a rare, pink diamond and buries it, but he's discovered by an overseer just as government troops overrun the fields and arrest everyone. The troops drag Solomon and the overseer off to jail before either of them can retrieve the diamond.

The other man is Danny Archer (DiCaprio), an ex-mercenary turned gun runner and diamond smuggler who will work for anybody who pays him enough. The government has just arrested him for trying to transport gems out of the country illegally, and they've thrown him into the same jail as Solomon and the overseer. It's here that Danny learns of Solomon's diamond. With his connections, Danny gets himself and Solomon released; then he quickly strikes a deal with the fellow: Danny will help Solomon find his family if Solomon will help Danny get his hands on the diamond and share it with him. Danny needs the money to pay back a crooked colonel (Arnold Vosloo) because of a smuggling deal that fell through, and Solomon just wants his family back.

From this point on, about a half an hour into the film, the story turns into a pretty straightforward adventure yarn, complete with a requisite pretty girl. In this case, the girl is Maddy Bowen (Connelly), an American journalist working on a story to expose the illicit blood-diamond trade in Sierra Leone. She's determined to get information from Danny, and Danny is not above using her to get what he needs to return to the diamond fields and uncover Solomon's pink diamond.

In the film the rebels are selling their diamonds illegally to a big, supposedly respectable diamond firm, the fictional Van De Kaap Diamond Company, a depiction of scandal that so upset the real De Beers diamond company that they protested the motion picture.

Zwick's strengths are in juxtaposing the extreme beauty of Sierra Leone (with gorgeous cinematography by Eduardo Serra) with the extreme nature of the violence there at the time. The movie carries an R rating for the brutality of the killings, which in the film could not have approached the ferocity of the real-life deaths. Still, the bloodshed the movie depicts is rampant, reminding us once again how little value so many people all over the world have placed on human life, whether in Africa, Iraq, America, Nazi Germany, or the Roman Empire. Things never change where money, power, and corruption are concerned.

Moreover, the acting is first-rate. DiCaprio is convincing as the amoral, self-styled soldier-of-fortune. Connelly is convincing as the dedicated reporter who wants to make a difference in the world by exposing injustice. And Hounsou is best of all as a father who will go to any means to get his family back. He should have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but I suppose a nomination is honor enough.

The problem is that beyond the scenery and the fine acting, the plot is rather threadbare and the characterizations somewhat clichéd. We've seen before the unprincipled antihero who slowly learns that there is more to life than his own little self, or perhaps you've forgotten "Casablanca"? And we've already seen the selfless crusader devoted to saving the world, as well as the father willing to give his life for his family. These are noble people with noble causes, to be sure, but they are hardly original.

Then, there's the question of the film's length. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it's far too long for its subject matter, a concern it shares with many other movies these days. Long is sometimes good, sometimes even better; and long is also sometimes just...long. Here, the pace flagged far too often for the film to keep my attention fully throughout.

What's more, Zwick's vision outpaces his narrative. Despite the movie's highfalutin' messages about greed, selfishness, the exploitation of the masses, the shame of child armies, our need for greater consumer awareness in buying goods that come at the price of human lives, and Man's general inhumanity to Man, we're mostly just getting stock characters acting out a stock melodrama. Again, while Zwick's heart is in the right place, he tends to forget how his excessive moralizing is losing his audience along the way.

The movie's last thirty minutes or so are the most gripping, although Zwick even drags this out too far. "Blood Diamond" is a film I enjoyed watching in part, but it's a film that kept making me wish had been better.

Video:
I thought that with a few exceptions the Warner Bros. engineers did a good job with the standard-definition transfer of the movie, and this HD DVD version holds up pretty well, too. The movie's dimensions, 2.35:1 in a theater, come across in my system at about 2.20:1, give or take some overscanning, the high-definition colors vivid and realistic, deep and rich, with excellent black levels. As in the SD edition, though, I noticed a small degree of roughness about the image, especially in more dimly lit scenes. Some of the graininess is perhaps intentional, but there are the occasional scenes where inner detailing is not always the best. The fact is, most of the film looks excellent, some outdoor, daylight shots looking spectacularly beautiful, while a few other shots, mostly dark ones, look a bit grainy and murky. By the time I finished the film, however, my overall impression was positive, impressed as I was mainly by the good. Call me an optimist.

Audio:
The English audio reproduction comes via Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1. By comparison to the standard-definition disc's regular Dolby Digital, which was a touch warm and soft, the new high-def sound is sharper and crisper, with an even wider dynamic range and impact. Because the director utilized the surrounds so well, without their overpowering the movie or drawing attention to themselves, the rear channels are more effective than usual in an action movie. The gun battles are especially dramatic, as are rain, thunder, voices, and the inevitable helicopter flybys. I listened primarily in Dolby TrueHD, where the sonics were quite lifelike, the midrange natural, and the bass deep. Still, the Dolby Digital Plus track was pretty impressive in its clarity and range as well.

Extras:
The HD DVD contains all of the items you find on WB's standard-definition Two-Disc Special Edition, with the addition of an "In-Movie Experience" and an Internet connection. The In-Movie Experience is the star of the extras. It combines the best qualities of a filmmaker commentary, a documentary, and a behind-the-scenes featurette, using picture-in-picture and a series of video vignettes to analyze almost every facet of the moviemaking process while the movie is running. Click on "In-Movie Experience," and people start talking at you from video inserts; then, click on "Focus Points" along the way, and you get short featurettes about the film. When each featurette is over, you're taken back to the film and the rest of the "In-Movie" experiences. I was particularly impressed by something director Zwick said in one of these in-movie featurettes. He said he wanted the violence in his film to look realistic, not "Hollywood." In Hollywood action films these days, he noted, when people are shot, they are knocked backward a considerable distance, with blood spurting out everywhere. Zwick looked over hours of actual newsreel footage of people getting shot in wartime and noticed that usually these real-life people simply fell over, fell down, with no visible blood until later. That's the way he wanted his film to look. I'd say it works.

The other new item, the Web connection, requires your HD DVD player be connected to the Internet. If so, you can access various activities, including maps of Africa to view areas of current conflicts; two separate polling stations for viewers to make their own comments about this movie and others they would like to see on HD DVD; and, finally, a promo area for WB to announce upcoming HD DVD titles.

The SD bonuses carried over from the Special Edition (now beautifully transferred in VC-1 and looking every bit as good as HD) begin with an extremely earnest and forthright audio commentary by director Zwick, and a fifty-minute documentary, "Blood on the Stone," by director Sorious Samura. The documentary examines the actual civil war that took place in the filmmaker's native country of Sierra Leone, and its consequences. After that are three featurettes. "Becoming Archer," eight minutes, is a behind-the-scenes affair with DiCaprio; "Journalism on the Front Line," five minutes, contains background on Connelly's role; and "Inside the Siege of Freetown," ten minutes, shows us how the film tried to duplicate much of the horror of the real-life siege. Then, there is a music video, "Shine On Em," by singer Nas doing the rap song that plays during the movie's closing credits.

Things conclude with a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-three scene selections (but no chapter insert); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; a zoom-and-pan feature; bookmarks; an indicator of elapsed time; and an Elite Red HD case.

Parting Thoughts:
According to Wikipedia, "Although the United Nations first identified the conflict diamond issue in 1998 as a source of funding for war, it was the diamond industry that took steps to address the conflict diamond issue by convening a meeting to plan a process by which diamond origin could be certified. In May 2000, diamond producing countries of southern Africa met in Kimberley, South Africa, to plan a method by which the trade in conflict diamonds could be halted, and buyers of diamonds could be assured that their diamonds have not contributed to violence.
On July 19, 2000, the World Diamond Congress adopted at Antwerp a resolution to strengthen the diamond industry's ability to block sales of conflict diamonds. The resolution called for an international certification system on the export and import of diamonds, legislation in all countries to accept only officially sealed packages of diamonds, for countries to impose criminal charges on anyone trafficking in conflict diamonds, and instituted a ban on any individual found trading in conflict diamonds from the diamond bourses of the World Federation Diamond Bourses.
On January 17-18 of 2001, diamond industry figures convened and formed the new organization the World Diamond Council. This new body set out to draft a new process, whereby all diamond rough could be certified as coming from a non-conflict source."

"Blood Diamond" may have done only middling business at the box office, but it got a lot of attention from the Academy, who nominated it for five Academy Awards: Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Djimon Hounsou), Best Film Editing (Steven Rosenblum), Best Sound Editing (Lou Bender), and Best Sound Mixing (Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, and Ivan Sharrock).

Regardless of the critical attention, it won no Oscars, perhaps for the same reason that theater audiences did not flock to see it in droves. Like the film's director on the commentary track, "Blood Diamond" is a little too earnest and too didactic to provide the thrills many viewers want from what is essentially an action flick. Nevertheless, "Blood Diamond" remains worth watching, especially in its new HD trim and with its added bonus features.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
9
Extras
9
Film Value
7