Given his humble beginnings as a kid doing TV sitcoms like “Growing Pains,” it’s extraordinary to be writing about two huge-budget films where Leonardo DiCaprio is an action hero, but that’s where we are. Nobody thought the economy would be in the shape it is, either, so life is full of surprises. In any case, both the Middle-East flavored “Body of Lies” and the Sierra Leone-based drama “Blood Diamond” are different kinds of thrillers, uniquely suited to DiCaprio’s screen presence. They’re both thoughtful, smart films where the main character is a conflicted guy who finds himself in the middle of a situation that requires all his skills just to stay alive, let alone to figure out how to be a good guy or if he even wants to. DiCaprio against DiCaprio in a rumble where bullets fly and f-bombs drop.
“Body of Lies” is the latest film from super-director Ridley Scott who lately seems to be fascinated by the Middle East and our role in it. In this film, DiCaprio plays Roger Ferris, a CIA operative with a bullet (as in, rising star) who’s trying to track down a bin Laden-type named al-Saleem. He’s out there in the field nearly getting killed on a daily basis while Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) lives a suburban life back in America where he, literally, phones it in to Ferris out in the field. The theme of the film seems to be deception: how you can let the deception that is part of your job bleed into your life, and that, ultimately, nobody is innocent. The screenplay was written by William Monahan (“The Departed”) working from a book written by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
The Defending Champion
“Blood Diamond” is about the extreme horror-show inflicted on Africa by the illegal diamond trade. It features the quest for an incredibly valuable large pink diamond that Alfred Hitchcock would have nailed as the MacGuffin. It’s set in 1999 when rebels are attacking the Sierra Leone government and do this through such brutal methods as amputating limbs from innocent civilians. Like I said, it’s a horror-show. DiCaprio plays a smuggler named Danny Archer who ends up in an unlikely alliance with fisherman Solomon Vandy (Djimon Housou). It’s a little (maybe even a lot) confusing but Solomon ends up in a forced labor camp, finds and hides the blood diamond and Danny gets wind of it and fancies the diamond for himself. Into this mix comes Jennifer Connelly who plays a tough American journalist named Maddy who’s out to write the big story exposing all the evil that comes from this bloody business.
Both of these films feel big and important. “Body of Lies” feels relevant because it’s about the U.S. presence in the Middle East and the war against terrorists. “Blood Diamond” wants to feel important because it wants audiences to feel bad for their silent complicity in the region’s exploitation. Nobody wants to pay ten bucks to be scolded. Advantage: “Body of Lies.”
In direction, it’s hard to dislike the way Ridley Scott makes a film. I saw this one at a Director’s Guild screening where Scott spoke after the film. Listening to him talk about using “only” 15 cameras on certain shots gives you an idea of the scope of things. He talked about the world of his film where perceptions are often wrong and good intentions don’t always count. It’s his world-view, and it’s presented effectively here. Ed Zwick directed “Blood Diamond” from Charles Leavitt’s screenplay and, unfortunately, they got a little heavy-handed. Advantage: “Body of Lies.”
As for DiCaprio, he’s excellent in both films. There’s more roguish charm to his Danny in “Blood Diamond” and more cynical frustration in his Roger in “Body of Lies.” Danny is never part of the lecture in “Blood Diamond” so he manages to skate above the worst aspect of the film. In “Body of Lies,” DiCaprio’s character is the lecture. Advantage: “Blood Diamond.”
And, if I can digress, what in the world is Russell Crowe thinking by agreeing to gain fifty pounds for his role in “Body of Lies.” He looks like a corpulent bureaucrat (which is his character) but no longer like a movie star. I say, Russell, dude, tell Ridley he can gain fifty pounds if he wants to, but you’ll do the role looking cool or not at all. Lose the weight and come back with something like “The Gladiator” again, okay? Advantage: “Blood Diamond” because Djimon Hounsou is so authentic and interesting and he looks like himself.
DiCaprio has grown into an awesome talent as an actor. Both of these films showcase his talent. Yet neither one of these films probably truly captures the worlds that they claim to be about as accurately as they want you to believe they do. I found myself thinking of “Blood Diamond” as someone else’s problem the longer I watched it while I had the opposite reaction watching “Body of Lies.” We know that the war on terror is messed up and, sometimes, the good guys and the bad guys use the other’s playbook. It makes you think without the lecture. That’s why it takes home the decision here. Go see “Body of Lies.”