Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Da 5 Bloods

A beautifully cinematic saga with some ugly edges, Spike Lee’s latest is one of his most epic, expensive and occasionally messy outings yet.

From a rather different-sounding 2013 script rewritten by Lee and co-writer Kevin Willmott, this isn’t a scary satirical comedy like his previous BlacKkKlansman but, instead, proves at once a study of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War centring the perspectives of African American GIs, a fond tip of the hat to a bunch of some of Lee’s favourite actors and a ferocious condemnation of President Trump (a.k.a. “President Fake Bone Spurs”). Oh, and an awkward and pretty unpleasant action movie too.

A very Spike Lee-ish opening montage offers a selection of archival footage featuring famous opponents of the war in Vietnam (Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), a glimpse of the landing on ‘Da Moon’, the Kent State massacre in 1970 and more, and then we watch as four former US Army soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division (the ‘Bloods’) gather in the present day in a very different Ho Chi Minh City. This senior bunch includes joker Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), medic Otis (Clarke Peters), now-bigshot Eddie (Norm Lewis) and intense Paul (Delroy Lindo from Spike’s Crooklyn, Clockers and more), and there are lovely comic scenes as they reconnect, laugh and even hit a dance floor (sort of).

The Blood quartet hope to journey to a remote jungle area to exhume the remains of their fallen comrade ‘Stormin’ Norman’, who’s played, in a perfect bit of superheroic casting, by Marvel’s Black Panther himself Chadwick Boseman. Flashbacks that hark vividly back to Apocalypse Now in their use of colour (and the aspect ratio and grain of the film itself) show the original five surviving a CIA plane crash, and we learn that Norman was killed in a battle shortly afterwards, leaving the Bloods, especially Paul, to be haunted by guilt ever since.

However, this apparently virtuous journey is also a cover for the remaining Bloods (and, unexpectedly, Paul’s worried son David, played by Jonathan Majors) to get their hands on the plane’s cargo: a huge locker of gold bars that they concealed and then, it seems, couldn’t find later. The crash site has recently been discovered and, with the help of guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), they hope to locate the loot and somehow(!) smuggle it all out of Vietnam with assistance from shady businessman Desroche (French cinema icon Jean Réno).

Yes, there’s a lot going on here, and director Lee does allow it to frequently lose control and sprawl, which is a shame as there are brilliant and scathing touches here, from Lee’s almost unparalleled knack for montage, to some strikingly sweaty atmosphere in the Vietnamese (sometimes Thai) locations. The soundtrack’s liberal use of classic Marvin Gaye cuts, and Lindo’s frighteningly fine performance also bring much feeling to the film’s back half. There’s also plenty of film buffery on show, with references to Apocalypse Now alongside glimmers of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre and 1983’s somewhat similar (and somewhat forgotten) Uncommon Valor.

Then again, after the older Bloods criticise the Rambo and even more disreputable Missing In Action films, damning their simplification of the era’s politics in favour of violent shoot-‘em-ups, one can’t help but notice that’s pretty much where the film finds itself in a chaotic final act.

All of which leads us to a prescient coda in which Lee’s baby, despite being completed well before the murder of George Floyd’ inspired protests across America, seems to speak directly to the current moment and the rallying cry of “Black lives matter!”

Da 5 Bloods (MA) is now streaming on Netflix

DM Bradley

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