(05/02/07) – Producer-director Edward Zwick makes movies that promise big themes and deliver cheesy thrills. Glory(1989) was a Civil War story about an all-black regiment, Legends of the Fall (1994) was about a Montana family torn apart by romance and the First World War, while The Last Samurai (2003) had Tom Cruise as a 19th-century American captain who goes through a culture clash with the Japanese. Blood Diamond, another social-conscience picture, will disappoint those looking for a thought-provoking piece in a minor key but as a super-glossy action-adventure movie it does okay.

The setting is Sierra Leone, 1999. The country is being torn apart by a rebel uprising against the government. After his village is attacked, fisherman and family man Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is captured by the rebels and forced to work mining diamonds. There he finds a blood diamond, which he manages to hide before he escapes during a skirmish. Blood diamonds or ‘conflict diamonds’ are the gems mined in war-torn areas which then get smuggled out and laundered to fund the global arms trade, thus exacerbating the fighting. On the trail of such a diamond is Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), a smuggler – from Rhodesia, he says pointedly – who dreams of making his mint so that he can find a way out of his improvised, on-the-run lifestyle. Danny has the gift of the gab and, given that he’s played by DiCaprio, is instantly likeable, but he is clearly an opportunist. He and Solomon team up because they need each other: Danny will help Solomon get to safety and find his family again, and Solomon’s knowledge of the stone’s whereabouts will allow them to profit from its sale. Thus, this odd pair has to negotiate their way through attacks by both the rebel army and the state-controlled militia, picking up idealistic journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) en route.

There are the seeds of a really good political thriller here, but one can’t help feeling that what Zwick and writers Charles Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell really want to do is deliver thrills – which, for the most part, they manage to do. The two Oscar-nominated central male performances are fine. DiCaprio does a South African accent which one can never quite get past, but his roguish charm makes him a very appealing anti-hero; it’s an efficient and ingratiating star turn from an increasingly impressive leading man. The demands placed on Djimon Hounsou are rather limited: Solomon’s family has been torn asunder and, through no fault of his own, he finds himself running for his life. But Hounsou is very good, and gives Solomon a resourcefulness and skepticism which fill out the character. Jennifer Connelly’s role, however, is criminally thin and it would take a more interesting actress than her to make it palatable. Maddy has only two functions: to provide the semblance of a love interest for DiCaprio and to voice the film’s theme – the exploitation of the African diamond industry by affluent first-world countries. Her presence is a sign of the film’s disappointingly conventional plotting.

In fact, it’s this sense of underachievement which rather lets Blood Diamond down. For all its very topical and resonant interest in the white man’s exploitation of Africa, it feels less a companion-piece to last year’s impressive The Constant Gardener and more like the love-child of Raiders of the Lost Arkand The Wild Geese. And if the final ten minutes of the film are ludicrous, it’s become a conventional complaint that big-budget Hollywood films go on too long these days. By the time we’re tracing the white-collar end of the blood diamond chain back in the evil West, the movie has already adequately conveyed its serious points. It would have been far more satisfying, and skilled, if the film had entwined its thematic concerns and its character arcs more seamlessly at the end, rather than separating them out like olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

On the whole, though, Blood Diamond is hard to dislike. Its action movie credentials are so resoundingly flashed that I found myself slightly annoyed that I was being so effortlessly carried along. It’s one of those movies which is endearing by virtue of its rather dated familiarity. And I didn’t know anything about conflict diamonds before I saw it.

Blood Diamond is playing across UK theatres now.