Da 5 Bloods

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/12/20 04:05:43

"Time Has Come Today"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

For about its first hour, Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” his first feature since winning his long-overdue competitive Oscar for “BlacKkKlansman,” is a spellbinding stretch of filmmaking as good as anything that he has ever done before in his career—it puts a new and audacious spin on some familiar cinematic tropes, it gathers together a number of strong and compelling performances and it is presented in a stylistically dynamic manner that reminds you that you are in the hands of a master filmmaker who is not afraid to try new things even at a point when they could comfortably rest on their laurels and no one would take any issue. The trouble is that the film runs for 155 minutes and it is at about this point that it starts becoming very uneven as moments of great emotional power and angry social commentary rub shoulders uneasily with far more conventional and far less interesting B-movie thrills and histrionics. The end result is a film is not a great Lee film on the order of “Do the Right Thing,” “Bamboozled” and “BlacKkKlansman” but the combination of the stuff that does work and Lee’s uncanny ability to make a movie whose ideas and concerns feel absolutely in sync with this particular moment in time, even though it was obviously made months ago, gives it the kind of spark that hasn’t been seen in a major film since “Parasite.”

The film is Lee’s first full-out exploration of the Vietnam War and its continued fallout, specifically focusing on the experience of Black soldiers who were being asked to fight and die in a foreign land for a country that was still violently struggling with the notion granting them basic civil rights back home. As the story opens, the four surviving members of a combat unit—Eddie (Norm Lewis), Otis (Clark Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Paul (Delroy Lindo)—have reunited in Vietnam, ostensibly to make a journey into the jungle in the hopes of discovering the remains of the fifth fallen member of their group, Stormin Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who was killed in a firefight, in order to bring them home at last for a proper burial. Although his retrieval is part of the plan, the group have a greater ulterior motive for their journey. The mission that they were on when they were attacked was to find the wreckage of a downed CIA plane and retrieve millions in gold bars that were being used to pay for information on the Viet Cong—they did find it but elected to bury it in order to come back later and retrieve it for themselves, using Otis’s onetime girlfriend (Le Y Lan) and her connections with a slick French money launderer (Jean Reno) to help transfer the proceeds.

Unexpectedly joined by Paul’s estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), the group set off down the river to their jungle entry point. As the trip progresses, there are flashbacks to memories of Norman, the true leader of the group, both physically and morally (at one point, he is forced to channel the rage and anguish of the others after they hear a news report of the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.), and it quickly becomes apparent that while all of the men are suffering from some form of trauma as the result of their experiences, some have been less successful at handling it. During a stop at a bar, David meets and flirts with Hedy (Melanie Thierry), a you French woman who is also confronting the past horrors of the war—with colleagues Simon (Paul Walter Hauser) and Seppo (Jasper Paakonen), she goes out to find and defuse/detonate still-active bombs and land mines. Eventually, the five men reach the jungle and, after a brief search, indeed manage to stumble upon both the gold and Norman’s remains.

You might naturally think that I have committed the unforgivable crime of giving away the climax of the movie but, as it happens, everything that I have described occurs during that aforementioned first hour and up until that point, “Da 5 Bloods” is really good. Kicking off with an incendiary montage of the upheaval that was going on in America while the fighting in Vietnam was going on, the film offers up a fascinating combination of straightforward storytelling and social commentary as it slips back and forth between seeing the guys in their contemporary incarnations—the others are horrified to learn that Paul has become an ardent Trump supporter, even sporting a MAGA hat in the jungle—and as their younger selves (which are presented without any CGI manipulation designed to make them seem youthful a la “The Irishman”) Visually, the film is quite striking as well, with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel switching between film stocks and aspect ratios to add an air of heightened reality to the proceedings without resorting to the expected hallucinogenic visions familiar from the likes of “Apocalypse Now.” Not all of it works completely—in terms of usefulness, the Melanie Thierry character is unnecessary enough that she could have been billed as “French Plantation”—but for the most part, this is Spike Lee firing on all cylinders as a filmmaker.

And it is as this point that the film starts to go sideways. What had previously been both a fascinating character study and a rare exploration of the African-American experience in Vietnam (and all American wars, to a certain extent) with undeniable parallels with what is happening on the streets at this very moment soon turns into just another variation of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” with the group torn apart from within by greed and the central conflict between Paul and David and from without by the dangers of both the jungle and a group of contemporary Vietnamese soldiers who want the gold for themselves, leading to a final standoff in which the old soldiers essentially get to fight one last battle. Now this is all executed decently enough from a technical perspective (though some of the bits of CGI splatter are fairly unconvincing) but for anyone who has made an investment in the characters and ideas offered up in the early scenes, to see them reduced to just another collection of action cliches is a little dispiriting. The actors continue to give it their all and their contributions are undeniably effective—with longtime Lee collaborator Lindo turning in perhaps the best and most gripping performance of his entire career—but things begin to unfold in such predictable ways that when Lee does throw in a more idiosyncratic move—primarily in a couple of monologues that Paul delivers straight to the camera—the effect is more jarring than effective.

So “Da 5 Bloods” is kind of a mess—it is long, unwieldy, includes a number of groan-worthy moments (such as the parts where Lee explicitly quotes from both “Apocalypse Now” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and spends most of its second half on perfunctory action beats that are staged well enough but lack the drive and commitment that Lee brings to the more serious-minded scenes. Still, even in its most awkward moments, the film is always watchable, the unevenness is, more often than not, the result of Lee trying to do too much rather than not enough and that first hour is as compelling a slice of American filmmaking that you are likely to see this year. More importantly, it feels alive and connected in a way that few films these days manage to accomplish and its final moments are genuinely movie. This may be a second-tier Spike Lee movie but, as it more or less proves, an admittedly uneven and undeniably second-tier effort from him is more interesting, both cinematically and dramatically, than the top shelf efforts of most of his contemporaries.

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