Monday, June 15, 2020

Da 5 Bloods

Directed by Spike Lee.
2020. Rated R, 154 minutes.
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Melanie Thierry, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman, Lê Y Lan, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Paul Walter Hauser, Veronica Ngo.

Four African-American veterans reunite in present day Vietnam, where they fought together during the Vietnam War. In a short while, we find out they have two reasons for being here. First, they're here on behalf of Stormin' Norman (Boseman), their beloved squad leader who never made it home, the fifth blood. They'd like to find his remains. Second, and more pressing, they're out to find the trunk of gold they buried in the jungle all those years ago.  

The key to making a film like this work is establishing and exploring the relationships between its characters. Director Spike Lee and his writing team makes sure to do just that. Their bond is solidified early so that through the disagreements, minor and major, we in the audience know that there is a lot of love between them. On the flip side, Lee makes it clear that personal circumstances threaten to override that love as the situation becomes more critical. This gives the film sustainable tension. We really feel that these men, who would once and still die for each other, are also willing to put their own needs above the greater good. There is both internal and external conflict for anyone entertaining such a notion. Eventually, what this group is trying to accomplish brings unwanted and dangerous attention, yet another test of their bond. This gives us a more action-packed third act than any film in Lee's filmography. Given the ages of our heroes, the explosions, and shootouts, the end of the film is more reminiscent of The Expendables than his own work, but in a good way. Before the carnage filled finale, the first two acts play out as a mashup of the look of Apocalypse Now, with several shots seemingly ripped straight from Coppola's classic, and the themes of The Treasure of Sierra Madre with a small dash of The Warriors Do the Right Thing thrown in. All of this gives the film an easily relatable base.

Of course, Lee is a director known to dive deep into the Black experience in nearly every film he makes. Da 5 Bloods is no exception. He does it here through the conversations the characters have in the midst of their quest. Early, many of them center on the difference in experiences had by Black and White soldiers returning home from the Vietnam War, and even touches on earlier wars. Those of us in the know will merely nod in agreement. Others who may not have considered such things might be more shocked at yet one more piece of evidence that everyone does not live in the same America. As the movie progresses, the topic of these conversations turns more contemporary, including a running debate on the merits of President Donald Trump. One of our characters, Paul (Lindo), is an ardent MAGA supporter, hat and all. To Lee's credit, and a credit to the performance of Delroy Lindo, this character is not unlikable. He sits in opposition to his friends from a philosophical standpoint, but he is a well-rounded human being whom we grow to have compassion for, even as he's clearly sliding into villainy (not a spoiler). He's compelling because no matter his overarching ideals, nor how much we might want to think his personal problems have gotten the best of him, he makes good points about what is immediately happening around them. Lindo plays the role with so much conviction, we can't help but believe that he believes every word coming out of his mouth. To reference The Treasure of Sierra Madre once more, Lindo's portrayal of Paul is very comparable to Humphrey Bogart's turn as Fred C. Dobbs.

Diving into the Black experience is often a double-edged sword wielded by Lee's films. He often does so in a way that's either preachy, takes the viewer out of the film, or both. I've long defended the director's tactics. My basic point is that, by now, you should no better than to go into a Spike Lee Joint looking for subtlety. This lack of story-telling tact works exceptionally well in some cases, most recently in BlacKkKlansman. In that film, the part that demanded our attention be turned away from the narrative we've been following is back-loaded into a powerful close that clearly lets us know that even though the good guys in the story that just concluded came out on top, they were merely the victors of a small battle in an ongoing war. It was a gut-punch purposely taking all the air from your lungs and forcing you to digest its meaning in your daily life when you were finally allowed to inhale. Here, it's a case of overkill as it happens way too often to do anything but distract us from the story at hand. The conversations characters have get pretty specific, often mentioning names and dates involved with particular events. By itself, this might be a bit preachy, but would work well enough. The audience is smart enough to connect those things to 2020 and see how far we haven't come. Lee takes it a step too far when he gives us so many cutaways to footage of those events that at certain times during the first two acts it feels like we've suddenly started watching a documentary. 

That we get a history lesson while being told a separate story didn't quite work for me this time, but it's something that doesn't surprise me. The bigger surprise, the one easiest to see and, I suspect, will be most talked about from a technical standpoint, is the decision to have all the older actors play themselves in flashbacks to the war without any sort of de-aging. The first time it happens, my mouth dropped open as I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Then I began to ponder why Lee would do this. The obvious answer is budget. Whether you like the results or not, it ain't cheap making all those old dudes in Marvel movies look young again. We're reminded as much when we finally do get one picture of the Bloods using the technology, and it doesn't look good. However, Spike found a way to make it work in artistic terms. I take it as characters simply inserting themselves the way they look now into their memories. When I remember things, I'm not focused on how I look, but the experience itself. It also eliminates the need to reintroduce the audience to each character and having us try to keep them all straight. That might be a weak argument, but it works for me. Besides, it gives us more Delroy Lindo, and I'm all for that.

I've mentioned Lindo's performance several times, with good reason. However, he's far from alone in this ensemble. It's also the best I've seen Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Otis and Melvin, respectively. The Otis subplot is particularly interesting and includes an excellent turn by Lê Y Lan (as Tiên). It could've been explored a bit further, but I fear that it would be to the detriment of the rest of the film, so Lee makes the right choice. Chadwick Boseman does well in limited screen time and makes us feel the respect these men have for him. Jonathan Majors, whom I've just recently seen lighting up the screen in The Last Black Man in San Francisco is again outstanding, ably conveying an array of emotions. Jean Reno isn't given much to do until late and gives a stock performance. I've never seen Norm Lewis (Eddie) or Melanie Thierry (Hedy) in anything, but both acquit themselves well.

As someone who has seen every Spike Lee Joint of his non-documentary work, and most of them a few times, I feel confident saying that evoking strong emotions and provoking thought about the world in which we live is as important to Lee as telling a good story. The best of his work manages to do both equally well. While this one has the added weight of a world still deeply mired in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, it doesn't quite reach the lofty top tier of his filmography. For me, there are five movies there: Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Bamboozled, He Got Game and BlacKkKlansman. Whether or not it reaches the second tier is debatable. 25th Hour, Clockers, and Inside Man come to mind. However, even the third tier is filled with excellent work. Despite some hiccups along the way, Da 5 Bloods is a very good, and much needed, film. It brings forth the humanity in its characters while simultaneously appealing to ours.


  1. I am hoping to see this film this coming weekend as I have other films in my DVR that I need to watch to make room for other films as I'm glad Spike is getting some attention as it seems like he's regained some of his old mojo but also use today's political/social climate to say something in a few shorts that he's done.

    1. Please give it a watch. It is a fascinating and timely film.

  2. I'm looking forward to seeing this - so great to read your review! I've only seen 2 Spike Lee movies so I have a long way to go, but this will be my 3rd!

    1. Oh, you have so long to go, lol. This is as good a place to start as any.

  3. So good. Def started slow, but once it picked up...I had to buckle up! Great review!