Leonardo DiCaprio just gets better

Volatile intrigue abounds in this story about South African arms dealer and diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou of Gladiator), a former diamond mine captive desperate to reunite with his family. Vandy has hidden a rare pink diamond in Sierra Leone that Archer will go to any lengths to obtain. Jennifer Connelly plays Maddy Bowen, an idealistic American journalist with more than a passing interest in Archer and, in the real story, the conflict diamonds making their way into the world market. Archer and Solomon must journey deep into rebel territory in Sierra Leone to retrieve the stone that could reunite Vandy with his family and buy Archer a way out of South Africa. Leonardo DiCaprio gives yet another career-high performance in this satisfying fast-paced action/drama by director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai).

In Blood Diamond, context is everything and the writers (C. Gaby Mitchell and Charles Leavitt) are keen to expose the illegal diamond trade that produces "conflict," or "blood," diamonds from banned zones. Revolutionary United Front (RUF) soldiers attack a small village in Sierra Leone whose impoverished inhabitants are indiscriminately shot by child soldiers on a mission to abduct more recruits. During the melee, an RUF officer with a machete uses an overturned boat as a chopping block to cut off the hands and arms of his victims. "Short sleeve or long sleeve," he jokingly asks before committing the vile act that will inform the reality of the film. It is in this grotesque nightmare that Vandy's child Dia is captured and the RUF commander spares Vandy's arms in order to enslave the powerful man to gather diamonds that will finance the rebel group. A UN meeting provides essential exposition about the prohibited diamonds from such conflict zones that make up 15 percent of the world's diamond trade. The story visits upon the chain of command that hoards and keeps the diamonds to keep prices high.

Danny Archer tellingly calls the place where he was born "Rhodesia" instead of its proper name, Zimbabwe. When Archer arrives to trade guns for diamonds with a local warlord, he switches from speaking English to talking in tribal African slang while his partner in crime circles the area in a single propeller plane with the guns onboard. Before being thrown into jail for smuggling his diamond compensation sewn into the neck of a goat, Archer presents himself to police as a believable National Geographic journalist. In the first 15 minutes, DiCaprio rifles through his character's highly developed skill set with a pedal-to-the-metal approach that defines him as a fluent interloper trapped inside Africa using the survival techniques he's perfected since witnessing the torture and murder of his parents when he was young. Archer's recurring motto, "T.I.A." (This is Africa) sums up the cold logic that enables him to never underestimate situations or opportunities, but that also dooms him to live and die a country where he doesn't belong.

Vandy and Archer are arrested under different circumstances but thrown into the same crowded jail where Vandy's also-incarcerated diamond mine boss publicly accuses Vandy of hiding a large pink diamond. Archer takes note of the disclosure and bails Solomon out of jail the next day with the promise that he will help Vandy reunite with his family if he will share the diamond. Maddy (Connelly) galvanizes the men's alliance when she agrees to help locate Vandy's wife and children, and it is her character that encourages Archer to see beyond his own selfish motives.

Blood Diamond is a treasure pursuit movie where the life-or-death chase scenes keep you on the edge of your seat. Nearly every scene erupts in a different type of violence. Like last year's The History of Violence, Blood Diamond is a study in various factors that generated bloodthirsty fury. Edward Zwick leverages his characters' tempers into a specific cinematic energy that functions on emotional, intellectual and physiological levels of empathy. Composer James Newton Howard (King Kong) adds integral aural embellishments to the atmosphere and movement of the story without overpowering the material. A subtle reference to John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the film's climax puts a grace note on the trajectory of Danny Archer's value system and gives it an unexpected lilt of humor and humanity.

Hounsou and Connelly give pitch-perfect performances behind DiCaprio's striking and ironic representation of a survivalist opportunist. It is unsettling to reflect on how our own instincts for survival, autonomy and wealth compare with Archer's attitude.

Here, DiCaprio commands a film, in the lead role, away from his mentor Martin Scorsese. The fruits of that apprenticeship are visible and it is clear that DiCaprio is the Marlon Brando of our time. The job he does in Blood Diamond should earn him an Oscar, more so even than for his performance in The Departed, for which he will likely also be nominated.

Danny Archer is a veritable anti-hero in a story of greed and brutality, and DiCaprio plays him with a tenacity and range of suppressed passion that carries us with him to the end of the earth.

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