A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2020

DA 5 BLOODS jjj

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 Hannah

Directed by Spike Lee  /  Written by Lee and Kevin Willmott

ORIGINAL FILM

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). 

The "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 ranks. 

The whole 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 darkness. 

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 Matter movement.   

This might be Lee's most gorgeously shot film, which is boasting with some sumptuous location shooting in Thailand and Vietnam (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel pays respect to the foreboding beauty and tortuously rigorous natural terrain here while getting creative with multiple aspects ratios and film stock to portray the various time periods and acts of the story, which gives the whole proceedings a wonderful visual texture).  This is also a long and (as some could aptly describe) unwieldy film that sometimes goes, well, everywhere, but Lee is such a calculating taskmaster here in terms of marrying together all of the various influences, tones, and imagery into one smoothly stirred cinematic cocktail.  Most crucially, DA 5 BLOODS is made with fiery audacity and angry passion and is not cut from the same cloth of oh-so-many other war films.  It's also an important film, like BLACKkKLANSMAN, for allowing us to vicariously live through the experiences of those simply not portrayed enough in these type of genre pictures.  Their stories deserve to be seen.  They matter.  Lee has made a career for aggressively pushing buttons with his racial charged dramas, and this one is no exception, and he does so here by mixing history and fiction that manages to educate and entertain in equal dosages.  That's a hard dichotomy to effectively pull of these days.

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