Blood Diamond (HD DVD)
Warner Bros. // R // $28.99 // July 3, 2007
Review by Adam Tyner | posted July 10, 2007
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"People back home wouldn't buy a ring if they knew it cost someone a hand."
- Jennifer Connelly as Maddy Bowen, Blood Diamond

Set in 1999 as civil war rages in the African nation of Sierra Leone, Blood Diamond opens as proud but impoverished fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) watches his life ravaged in front of him by the forces of the Revolutionary United Front. His wife and youngest children vanish in the savage raid, and his bright, studious son Dia has been taken captive as a child soldier for the R.U.F. The luckiest of the villagers merely saw their hands lopped off at the wrist; most were gunned down without a flicker of hesitation. Vandy nearly shared that same grisly fate, but the R.U.F. decided that his imposing frame would be put to more profitable use mining the diamonds needed to fund the rebellion.

The once-proud fisherman's life is reduced to standing in a muddy pond, sifting through gravel in the hopes of uncovering a tiny diamond for his captors. One of the slaves toiling alongside him is gunned down for trying to slink away with a barely-discernable speck of a diamond, and when Vandy stumbles upon a mammoth stone -- a pink diamond of some one hundred carats -- he's careful to mask it from the R.U.F. Vandy sees the diamond as his key to a reunion with his family, and he very nearly escapes with it. His deception is quickly revealed, but the chaos of a raid by government soldiers gives Vandy just enough time to bury the stone before being arrested.

One of his former captors bellows threats in jail that he's seen the large pink stone and will carve it out of Vandy if need be. It's a spectacle that attracts the attention of Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio), an arms dealer who routinely brokers the exchange of diamonds for the heavy artillery the R.U.F. demands. After botching an attempt at smuggling a set of small stones into Liberia, Archer needs the gem to cover his losses and avoid being butchered himself. Archer quietly arranges for Vandy's release, explaining that a white man with influence can do more to reunite him with his family than Vandy could ever hope to accomplish on his own. In exchange, naturally, Archer wants the diamond. Joined by Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), an American journalist who needs Archer's connections to pull back the veil on the corrupt diamond industry, they start on the arduous journey back to the watery mines where the jewel was hidden.

Blood Diamond's mix of social commentary with sweeping Hollywood production values is familiar territory for director Edward Zwick, who'd previously helmed such epics as Glory and The Last Samurai. The result is a movie that's considerably above average as action-adventure fare but isn't nearly as the substantial, meaningful film Blood Diamond seems to have convinced itself that it is.

Blood Diamond is unflinchingly brutal. Frantic women and children are gunned down with a cackle for no discernable reason other than to sow terror. The rebels of the R.U.F. crack jokes and snicker while chopping off the hands of defenseless young boys. The movie offers a glimpse into how these children are snatched and brainwashed, using heroin cocktails, blindfolded executions, and ruthless indoctrination to steel these bright-eyed youth into butchers. Blood Diamond makes no attempt to water down the violence or avert its eyes from the bloodshed. The film uses this brutality and the insatiable greed that provokes it as part of an overriding message, which is, of course, not to support conflict diamonds. It's a message that's impossible to miss, but seemingly unconvinced that the audience can arrive to that conclusion on its own, the screenplay shoehorns in several preachy monologues to repeatedly hammer the point home.

It's intriguing that the 'hero' of the film is a self-serving arms dealer. There's no third-act crisis of conscience, and whenever Archer does something that may be construed as noble, it's either to serve another purpose or because there's simply no profit in any other approach. Archer is the most richly drawn of the three leads, acted with the incendiary intensity DiCaprio is so renowned to bringing to his performances and with a thoroughly convincing accent to boot.

Jennifer Connelly has an incredibly engaging presence on-screen, but Maddy Bowen is the most thinly sketched of the main characters, and there's only so much she can do in the role. Bowen is there in large part to prod the story along, unlock a few doors that would otherwise have been inaccessible to Vandy and Archer, and play the obligatory love interest. She does have one particularly interesting angle, though, driven to expose the underbelly of the diamond trade despite her awareness that even her greatest efforts are unlikely to have any lasting impact.

Vandy's search for his wife and other children isn't especially compelling on its own -- it's hard to feel invested in a quest for characters who only have a couple of minutes of screentime -- but as we're offered much more of a glimpse into the torment Dia suffers and how a studious, instantly likeable child was so thoroughly transformed into a hardened killer is far more engaging. Hounsou's earnestness and determination drive the search forward, but I'd much rather have seen the film find some way to dispense with the MacGuffin of the enormous pink diamond in favor of an emphasis on the child soldiers or the corrupt industry itself.

I enjoyed Blood Diamond, but it's difficult to overlook that the film sets lofty goals that it's ultimately unable to fully realize. The production values are outstanding, bolstered by some of the most skillfully executed action sequences of the past year and some tremendous talent in front of the camera. However narratively dense the storytelling may be, Blood Diamond lacks a particularly strong focus. Its runtime meanders as it draws out the largely uninteresting search for a diamond in the third act. The backstories and subplots are of far more interest than the quest itself, which relies on the film's explosive action to propel the pacing forward. Blood Diamond is a well-acted action-adventure movie, but it's not the resonant, socially conscious, important film it clearly sets out to be.

This HD DVD of Blood Diamond follows well after the standard definition release and nearly a full month after its arrival on Blu-ray. Although some may be disappointed by the delay, which was apparently necessary to accomodate some of the disc's additional interactivity, that gap of several months means that Warner is treating it like a catalog title rather than a day-and-date release, presenting the film as a single-sided, dual-layered disc with a more modest sticker price than usual.

Video: I've read some harsh criticisms of Blood Diamond's VC-1 encoded, 1080p video, including reports of glaring compression artifacting. I'm generally able to spot these sorts of issues without any problem, but nothing of that sort caught my eye at all throughout the film. I'm admittedly reviewing this HD DVD on a 50" plasma, and larger displays may be more revealing, but I was generally impressed with the way Blood Diamond is presented in high definition.

To be fair, Blood Diamond doesn't have the glossy sheen of similarly budgeted blockbusters we've seen on HD DVD throughout the past year. The weight of film grain varies drastically from one shot to the next, the contrast is often flatter than usual, and the image occasionally takes on a slightly soft, almost murky appearance. Blood Diamond isn't showcase material, but the general consensus on some of the home theater forums I read appears to be that the film looked much the same way theatrically. The cinematography by Eduardo Serra is often striking, taking full advantage of Blood Diamond's lush African setting, and its vividly saturated palette stands out in particular. Crispness and clarity can be somewhat variable, especially in the more panoramic shots, but fine object detail is generally strong; there was never any doubt that I was watching a film in high definition.

Audio: Blood Diamond boasts a spectacular Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that immerses the room in sound, teeming with ambiance that fleshes out the movie's remote third-world setting and roaring to life during the chaotic, bullet-spattered action sequences. Gunplay and the thunder of a helicopter flying overhead are bolstered by a powerful low-end, and the film's dialogue is clear and distinct throughout, emerging without any concern even during its most punishing moments.

The HD DVD also offers Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 soundtracks and accompanying subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Extras: Blood Diamond is the first major release to take advantage of the HD DVD format's online capabilities. It follows just a couple of weeks after Bandai Visual's initial volume of Freedom, which allowed users to download a short TV spot as well as unlock additional content hidden on the disc. Blood Diamond takes a different approach than Freedom, presenting the user with an intuitive and attractively designed interface similar to a web browser.

I'd imagine that much like a web page, the content available to Blood Diamond online could change down the road, but the featured interactivity as I write this is "Maps of Conflict". This feature takes a map of Africa and highlights the key regions where conflicts are raging, detailing the tensions specific to each area, the resources that are funding the struggles, and the presence of child soldiers there. Presumably the reason this feature has been placed online is for revisions that will be incorporated as time goes on; otherwise, it could easily have been provided on the disc itself.

Warner has also included a poll for viewers to respond about the impact Blood Diamond had on them and how they may approach purchasing diamonds in the future. A second poll lists a handful of films from several different genres than users can vote on, and although the selection isn't extensive, it is intriguing to think that enthusiasts could have a direct impact on which films Warner releases and when. The last of the online extras is a list of some of the other titles currently available on HD DVD from Warner Home Video.

This initial attempt at online interactivity from Warner is fairly lightweight, but they have to start somewhere, and hopefully Blood Diamond is just a hint of things to come.

Also exclusive to this HD DVD is another of Warner's In-Movie Experiences. Though there is a smattering of the sort of picture-in-picture commentary offered in a number of the studio's other HD DVDs, the bulk of the material is presented in "Focus Point" mini-featurettes. When the In-Movie Experience logo morphs into a yellow disc, a press of the 'Enter' button leaves the movie behind to play a short featurette, the majority of which run a minute or two in length. These Focus Points were presented on the Blu-ray disc as a feature separate from the movie, but the footage is only accessible on the HD DVD as part of the In-Movie Experience. There are a couple dozen mini-featurettes, which offer test footage of some of the pyrotechnics, an excerpt of Kagiso Kuypers' audition tape, a run through some of the more elaborate sequences in the movie, and glimpses at location scouting, building sets, costuming, casting extras, and assembling the film's weaponry. The Focus Points are comprehensive enough to touch on such unconventional topics as having someone on-hand to keep the production's environmental impact in check and teachers on-set who were there to put Blood Diamond's violence in some sort of context for the young, impressionable actors playing the child soldiers. The hunger for authenticity and the difficulty of the shoot are particularly favorite topics, and I also enjoyed hearing about the diversity of the crew, which spanned eleven countries and nearly two dozen languages.

Aside from the Focus Point featurettes, the traditional picture-in-picture interviews and behind-the-scenes footage expected from an In-Movie Experience don't appear as frequently as usual but are present as well. Very little interview footage has been recycled from the other extras on the disc, and there are some nice new additions such as comments from a police officer from Freetown. Consultant Sorious Samura, whose documentaries on Sierra Leone were an important touchstone for Blood Diamond, is a dominant presence throughout the first hour or so of the film, and director Edward Zwick appears more and more as the movie goes along. Some of the highlights from the picture-in-picture commentary include the less glamorous way people die by gunfire in reality versus what's shown in movies and the irony of the rappers that influence these child soldiers potentially wearing conflict diamonds in their music videos.

The remaining extras are ported over from the two-disc DVD release, all of which are offered again in standard definition. The three featurettes are fairly thin. "Becoming Archer" (8:33) and "Journalists on the Front Lines" (5:15) offer a very cursory look at the thought and preparation that went into shaping Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly's characters, respectively, devoting about as much of their lean runtimes to clips from the movie as they do to praise-laden interviews with the cast and crew. There isn't a traditional making-of piece, but "Inside the Siege of Freetown" spends ten and a half minutes on the logistics involved in planning one of the film's stand-out sequences. Along with discussions about the months and months of coordinating with the locals and the attention paid to authenticity and safety, there are also storyboard comparisons and notes about the intensive training camp the extras underwent to prepare for the shoot. These three featurettes are letterboxed but not enhanced for widescreen displays.

The most compelling of the disc's extras isn't related to the production of the film itself. Sorious Samura's 50 minute documentary Blood on the Stone in a way picks up where Blood Diamond leaves off, investigating whether or not the Kimberley Process is indeed keeping conflict diamonds out of the marketplace. Samura interviews former child soldiers, impoverished miners, government agents, and legitimate diamond dealers to get their thoughts on the violence that Sierra Leone is still stinging from a decade later and what the Kimberley Process means to them. Samura isn't a passive documentarian, incorporating himself heavily into Blood on the Stone as he illustrates the corruption of the government by showing how much miners pay in bribes to get a permit, effortlessly smuggling a "diamond" across the border, toiling at an illegal mine, and going undercover to sell undocumented diamonds in both Guinea and New York City. It's a rough-hewn but intriguing piece, from the fact that so few of the miners Samura encounters have ever even heard of the Kimberley Process to the vast disparity in estimates as to how many conflict diamonds are finding their way out of Sierra Leone. The documentary was shot on digital video and is presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Director Edward Zwick also contributes a detailed commentary track. Despite the length of the movie, Zwick has no trouble keeping the discussion lively for the film's more than two hour runtime. The commentary is heavy on production notes, detailing precisely when, where, and how most of the movie's sequences were filmed. Zwick maintains a serious tone throughout but doesn't ever come across as monotone or disinterested. The most intriguing of his comments put some scenes in a much more specific context. For instance, Dia is shown being injected with some sort of drug, and purely for the sake of the story, it doesn't matter what he's being injected with, specifically, but Zwick is able to elaborate in the commentary that these child soldiers were typically doped up with a cocktail of heroin, methamphetamines, and gunpowder. A few of his other comments include how the propmasters arrived at the perfect size for Solomon's pink diamond, some of the specific journalists that inspired Connelly's performance, and seamlessly blending CGI into the filmed imagery. There is inevitably some overlap between this and the In Movie Experience, but there's enough unique material in this audio commentary for it to be deserving of a listen.

An anamorphic widescreen trailer and a music video for Nas' "Shine On 'Em" round out the extras.

Conclusion: Despite its best intentions in exposing the horrors of Sierra Leone's bloody rebellion and the havoc wreaked by the purchase of conflict diamonds, Blood Diamond's attempt at incorporating this sort of political and social statement in the context of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster isn't entirely successful. I appreciate Blood Diamond on several levels -- it's a spectacularly well produced film with a strong cast and some outstanding action sequences -- but without those to prop up the meandering, unfocused screenplay, the movie would've been borderline-unwatchable. Blood Diamond is ultimately unable to live up to its lofty ambitions. Flawed though it may be, Blood Diamond succeeds on enough counts for me to recommend this HD DVD, if somewhat hesitantly. Recommended.

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