Synopsis – Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
My Take – To be a honest I don’t consider myself a fan of filmmaker Spike Lee‘s work, as over the years, considering his very large output, I have found them all swinging between hit (BlacKkKlansman) and miss (Old Boy), with very little in between.
While his latest joint was supposed to open in select theaters, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced Netflix to change its strategy, it’s release online could hardly be timelier considering how the U.S.A and its administration has currently found itself facing serious protests against systematic racism, mass incarcerations, and police brutality, the latter of which has the world in revolt after George Floyd, an African American man, was targeted and killed by a White police officer.
But Floyd was not the first victim, nor will he be the last, in the country’s war against people of color, a somber fact that filmmaker Spike Lee has grappled with over the course of his decades-spanning iconic filmography, which also include films like Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, by educating on the ugly persistence of systemic racism in America, a country which is built on the foundation of providing freedom to all. And his latest, even though it is set in present-day Vietnam, is no exception.
While the film is far from being his best or most cohesive work, and suffers especially in comparison with its predecessor, BlacKkKlansman, on its own, it still is very enjoyable and truly thought-provoking because it possess a multi-layered narrative that explores a plethora of ideas on a superficial level and also on a substantive one.
Running at 154 minutes, the joint works as a mix of many things, a retooled Vietnam War film, a heist thriller, a history lesson, a comedy about grumpy old men, and all spliced together with documentary footage to create a powerful film. As with virtually all his films, this one will also force you to think about difficult questions all the while it entertains you. An element which only few filmmakers can successfully pull off in a mainstream film.
The story follows four black Vietnam War veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who arrive in present-day Vietnam to search for the remains of their former squad leader, Norman Earl “Stormin’ Norman” Holloway (Chadwick Boseman), and bring it back to his two surviving sisters back in America. However, also in their sights is the pile of gold bricks, which was originally issued by the American government to thank the South Vietnamese for assisting them in the war, they had buried near him.
Unsurprisingly, things do not go as planned, especially with the unexpected appearance of David (Jonathan Majors), Paul’s son, who remains adamant about joining them in the quest, and their distrust of Desroche (Jean Reno), a French businessman who is interested in buying the gold from them, nagging their minds. As with many tales of legendary fortune, the wealth at stake quickly exposes stark divisions among the former Bloods, as both misunderstandings and old injuries (both physical and psychological), begin to surface, putting everything at stake.
On its most essential level, despite being an adventure film, it is about the racist legacy of that terrible war in which Black soldiers were disproportionately placed on the front lines to die, even as they were being discriminated against on American soil and the way trauma never really left them. As far as our four heroes are concerned, the American government owes them that gold.
The screenplay, credited to director Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, lays out the Bloods’ rationale with unsurprising bluntness, sometimes cutting away from the story to provide historical context, and sometimes injecting that context into the characters’ own dialogue. They talk about the horrors of slavery, the struggles of the civil rights movement and the grossly disproportionate number of black soldiers who were sent to fight and die in Vietnam.
An irony hammered home at the outset with a montage of archival footage of black GIs and famous figures like Muhammad Ali, Angela Davis, and Kwame Ture commenting on the hypocrisy of their conscription. This point is further underscored by historical factoids embedded in flashbacks of Stormin’ Norman’s expostulations and radio broadcasts by Hanoi Hannah (Veronica Ngo) interpolated throughout the film, along with a smartly curated selection of songs by Marvin Gaye.
It is admirable that director Spike Lee doesn’t shy away from revealing uncomfortable truths about the Vietnam War almost as much as he doesn’t shy away from showing sudden, and shocking, outbursts of violence and blood.
As he chooses to show real footage of a massacre of innocent Vietnamese people, the oppression of black people, Martin Luther’s speech, so many real events relating to the issues of America that is impactful and powerful.
Though the film is quite literally action packed, it has two set pieces that stuck out to me. One involves the canoe-ride the Bloods take to the jungle. As they glide down the river, they are solicited by merchants, also on boats. They buy a six pack of beer, say no to the guy peddling flowers. A man, selling live chickens, gets a little pushy and doesn’t quite realize how agitated Paul is getting. A scuffle breaks out, with the merchant ending up screaming at the veterans that they killed his parents. Another scene involves the disarming of a landmine, which apparently till date exist in the Vietnamese jungles.
The changing aspect ratio for different acts is also cleverly used here and the editing, just masterful! The lush soundtrack features the work of the great longtime Lee collaborator Terrance Blanchard as well as era-appropriate music including Marvin Gaye’s mournful acapella version of “What’s Going On.”
However, I did have some issues with the film. While I felt the run time was appropriate, I found the forcefully inserted social messages quite distracting. Mainly as they never serve any purpose to the main story, and instead come out as muddled and messy. Secondly, I was not onboard with the same actors playing their younger self 50 years ago. Keeping in mind how Netflix let Martin Scorsese employ de-aging technique for The Irishman, it just felt very off, especially considering how these older man looked up to and literally worshiped the much younger Stormin’ Norman. There are multiple ways to negotiate flashbacks, and director Lee could’ve simply used a set of younger actors instead.
Regardless, the performances are phenomenon enough to keep you glued to the screen. Clarke Peters is especially strong in the less showy role, and is followed closely by his compatriots Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr, with Jonathan Majors bringing in another memorable performance. Chadwick Boseman is perfectly cast as an effortlessly charismatic natural leader, while Jean Reno, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Veronica Ngo and Lê Y Lan provide excellent support.
Nevertheless, the film belongs to Delroy Lindo, who has garnered the most critical recognition, and for good reason. Emerging as the most complicated and emotionally ravaged character, Lindo‘s emotional performance is just astonishing, and will possibly lead towards an Oscar nomination next year. On the whole, ‘Da 5 Bloods’ is a fun, daring, and immensely relevant joint from Spike Lee that is handsomely filmed, well-acted, and intermittently compelling.
Directed – Spike Lee
Rated – R
Run Time – 154 minutes