DA 5 BLOODS
2020, R, 154 mins.
Chadwick Boseman as Norman / Delroy Lindo as Paul / Jean Reno as Desroches / Jonathan Majors as David / Paul Walter Hauser as Simon / Jasper Pääkkönen as Seppo / Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Melvin / Clarke Peters as Otis / Mélanie Thierry as Hedy / Norm Lewis as Eddie / Van Veronica Ngo as Hanoi HannahDirected by Spike Lee / Written by Lee and Kevin Willmott
To label writer/director Spike Lee's Netflix original film DA 5 BLOODS as a war drama would be misleading. It's a decidedly rare breed of war genre effort that's less about transporting you to the past and into the hellish battlefields and is more about the psychological imprint that combat leaves on surviving veterans, which is made especially more intriguing when one considers the racial makeup of the people in question.
If anything, DA 5
BLOODS makes for a wonderful companion piece to Lee's last joint in the
Oscar winning BLACKkKLANSMAN (my
choice for the best film of 2018) in the way it looks at history through a
viewfinder that reflects back on contemporary woes.
DA 5 BLOODS is a sprawling, ambitious, and incredibly timely
portrait of how the Vietnam War affected African Americans, but it also
pays loving tribute to the heist and men-on-a-mission genre.
It's as masterfully conceived and executed as any film from the
63-year-old filmmaker, and it shows him to be a continually vital
cinematic button pusher.
And, yes, there
have been countless films that have traversed the Vietnam War, but
virtually none being made via the black prerogative.
Originally, DA 5 BLOODS was set to become a cinematic return to the
war in question for Oliver Stone, but then Lee and screenwriter Kevin
Willmott decided to acquire the script and re-work it as a spiritual
follow-up to BLACKkKLANSMAN. This
was all probably for the absolute best, because we've been afforded so
achingly few war films presented via minority eyes, and Vietnam did impact
African Americans on a fundamentally different level than white America.
The film opens with some splendid archival footage, perhaps the
most famous of which being Muhammad Ali in a 1968 interviewing explaining
why black Americans have no business being in 'Nam.
"They never lynched me...they never put no dogs on me,"
in reference to the enemy abroad. The
film is littered with other historical tidbits, like a sobering reminder
that hundreds of thousands of African Americans fought in the Civil War,
both World Wars, and Vietnam...and all during times when their individual
freedoms were lacking. The
most intrinsically compelling angle of DA 5 BLOODS is how Lee paints his
story so intimately in showing how the Vietnam experience tainted four
black men that served in it while exploring what the war meant for race
relations in the U.S. during its era.
And like BLACKkKLANSMAN, DA 5 BLOODS shows how the past can still
negatively taint the present.
One of the most
damning stats that the film projects on us is that 11 per cent of Americans
were black in 1970, but about 35 per cent of those that fought in Vietnam
were also black. That's
staggering. Lee's plot bobs
and weaves fluidly from past to present and back again in dealing with a
group of aging Vietnam veterans, all black, who decide to band together to
actually return to Vietnam, which may seem peculiar enough until we learn
what their collective end game is. The
band of brothers in question includes the hot headed, PTSD syndromed, and
MAGA hat wearing Paul (Delroy Lindo), who's so "tired of not getting
mine" that's he's reduced himself to being a Trump supporter.
Paul is downtrodden and poor, but doesn't like charity from anyone.
Then there's Eddie (Norm Lewis), who was once rich but now faces
bankruptcy (which he keeps from his ex-squadmates).
Ottis (Clarke Peters) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) rounds out the
quartet, and these men have indeed been through hell and back.
The fifth member of their tightly knit unit never made it out of
Vietnam alive: Norman (Chadwick Boseman) was their leader, but fell in
battle (interestingly, the flashback sequences showing him also involves
the other actors without any digital de-aging at all, which is jarring at
first, but a stylistic choice that's perhaps less distracting than what it
could have been).
"bloods" (as they refer to themselves as) wish to return to
Vietnam to find the remains of their fallen comrade in arms, and they
first meet up in a Ho Chi Minh City hotel they soon realize that this is
not the Vietnam of the past (it's now littered western fast food chains).
After a night of partying and boozing, the four men begin their
pilgrimage back into the jungles where they fought fifty years ago to
secure Norman's remains...buuuuuuut...they also want to secretly hunt down
a footlocker of buried CIA gold bars that the men discovered back in the
day, but then hide from everyone. Along
for the ride is Paul's estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), who tries
to mend their broken relationship along the way.
Of course, the men do in fact find Norman's remains as well as the
well sought after gold bars, but in pure TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE
fashion, the obsession for fame, glory and riches starts to have a
disturbing impact on these former grunts, leading to dissention in the
thematic undercurrent of DA 5 BLOODS makes it such a richer Vietnam War
centered film than most. It
explores how a segment of society fought in an immoral war in highly
disproportionate numbers, only later to come back to a country where their
civil liberties were still being bitterly spat on. Lee's film may be about the sins of yesterday, but it
reverberates so topically right now, especially in the wake of the Black
Lives Matter movement. This
film is perhaps as urgent minded as any Lee has directed, even though it's
pure coincidence that it's being released now when it was made well in
advance of the aforementioned social justice movement hitting its peak
this year. But, timing, as
they say, is everything, and DA 5 BLOODS has an unmistakable aura of
consequence now. That, and
the film has so many moments of ironic juxtaposition.
Take, for instance, a well crafted moment early on when the bloods
gather in a trendy Vietnam bar called, yup, Apocalypse Now and dance and
drink the night away with citizens that were once their bitter
adversaries. There's also a notable subplot involving Ottis reacquainting
himself with a former Vietnamese lover that manages to spill over into a
predictable reveal, but one that nevertheless shows the impact of the war
on both sides, which highlights Lee's fair and democratic hand.
The question as
to how saintly the bloods are in the film is an intoxicating one.
They obviously cared for their dear friend in Norman, but are they
really returning for him or for the unfathomable riches that could be
bestowed upon them if they find the buried treasure?
Lee never puts these men on a high pedestal of hero worship.
In many respects, these are flawed men that have suffered
unspeakable mental and physical hardships in their lives and in war, but
greed still possesses their souls. And
not all of the men want to use to gold for the right reasons.
Some want to bring it home to America to share it with their
suffering kind, whereas others simply want to pad their own bank accounts.
The later sentiment is really driven home with the character of
Paul, one of the most hypnotically enthralling movie personas in quite
some time. He's clearly
damaged goods, and on top of the incalculable toll that the war waged on
his mind, body and spirit, he selfishly wants the gold for himself as
reparations for everything he's lost in life.
He's an understandably vulnerable and wounded figure, but his
choices and methods in the film show how much he's slipped into a heart of
And, man, Delroy
Lindo - perhaps one of the best actors regardless of race to have never
been nominated for an Oscar - gives one of his most ferociously empowered
performances of his rich career playing of his most fascinatingly complex
characters. He occupies a
magnificent moment late in the film, giving an agonizing monologue -
that's pure terrifying fire and brimstone and is the stuff of Academy
nomination glory. His cast
around him triumphantly rounds off one of the finest ensembles of recent
memory. Whitlock Jr., Lewis,
and Peters are as refined as Lindo, and all of them together create such a
natural and authentic bond of lifelong friendship: they make you believe
that these men have shared have a century of hurt together, and their
chemistry is what makes their story ring with so much truth, even when the
narrative takes some out-there detours.
DA 5 BLOODS builds towards a wildly blood soaked, but well earned
climax where everything comes to a head in a devastating fashion while
positively showing hope for the future by paying props to the Black Lives