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Violent message Actors' political views come through in thriller

Leonardo DiCaprio is -- understandably -- trying to pick up Jennifer Connelly in "Blood Diamond." He's a cynical soldier of fortune, she's an American reporter in Africa.

"Let's go back to your room and see what's in the minibar," he leers.

"I'm a print journalist," she replies. "I drank it."

I guffawed. If I were a better person -- or the movie had been better (I'm not sure which applies more) -- the truly memorable line from the film would have been this one: "People back home wouldn't buy an engagement ring if they knew it cost someone else their head."

Strictly speaking, Ed Zwick's "Blood Diamond" is a far more admirable movie about the Third World than "Babel." It's an exciting, bloody, violent and old-fashioned romantic thriller that takes place in Africa -- Sierra Leone and environs, to be specific. And to its credit, it brings news: a very small minority of the diamonds that are purchased in this country are "conflict diamonds," mined under tyranny in virtual slavery conditions, often by child laborers.

Here is a whole movie fiction telling us a story we'd usually see on a "60 Minutes" segment -- a story full of search, anguish, love and a lot of blood and mayhem.

There is, most definitely, a new political Hollywood -- a large clump of movie star citizens who will gravitate to any movie that tells stories about the oppressed and marginalized in a very real world -- George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly, Will Smith (wait until you hear about "The Pursuit of Happyness," opening next Friday). They're putting their careers where their hearts are.

Taken individually, these new leftist stars can be everything from insufferable to impressive. Considered as a group, though, there is something hugely admirable about this wavelet of movie stars opting repeatedly to go where the message is rather than the money -- to use their overpaid, overphotographed faces to tell America what it probably does need to know. Obviously, it's no accident that they're doing this during the Bush years, but it's still admirable nevertheless.

So why, then, did I get the feeling watching the violent, conscience-stirrings of "Blood Diamond" that somewhere inside this new style political thriller, there was a Stewart Granger/Ava Gardner movie struggling to get out? You know -- cynical white hunter, spunky beauty, a terrific part for the newest version of Sidney Poitier (in this case, the superb Djimon Hounsou of "Amistad" and "Gladiator").

There's even a kind of slave-mongering, bad-guy Victor Jory part here (played by Arnold Vosloo).

The politics of the movie may be a wee bit new, and so is the violence level, but the narrative style is old-fashioned and archetypal. It even ends, a la "Ray" with the big "triumph" of a suffering black man honored by white politicians, as if the greatest thing that can be done under circumstances of injustice and suffering is getting their attention (there's an old joke about an intractable mule and a nasty guy with a shovel that begs to be repeated here).

In "Blood Diamond," you follow Leo, complete with Zimbabwe accent, as he helps forced laborer Hounsou retrieve the huge pink diamond that he can trade for his cruelly sundered family. Connelly makes it a threesome because, yes, she's a journalist and she knows that here is the story of her life. (She doesn't fantasize about the movie and book deal; it's not that kind of movie.)

It has a certain old-style sweep and archetypal narrative authority, however lacking it may be in -- heaven forgive me -- sparkle.

Ed Zwick has often been idealistically good in the director's chair -- from the time he was thinking aloud about journalism and apocalypse in the magnificent TV movie "Special Bulletin" or making "Glory" and "The Last Samurai." He's like the big studio version of indy grandee John Sayles -- a whole lot more high-minded than you expect.

But not quite talented enough to match his nobility, either.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

BLOOD DIAMOND

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Connelly and Djimon Hounsou

DIRECTOR: Edward Zwick

RUNNING TIME: 138 minutes

RATING: R for violence and gore

THE LOWDOWN: A huge rare diamond becomes everyone's passport to a better life in a vicious, illegal industry.

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