Da 5 Bloods
Obviously it wasn’t planned, but this film could not have picked a better time to be released. The movement for greater recognition of the rights for minorities has never been as relevant, as notable or as dominating in its impression on the international news cycle than it is right now, making it the perfect time for Spike Lee’s latest “joint” to become part of that same conversation. Certainly, BlacKkKlansman did much the same in the aftermath of Charlottesville. But, in many ways, that may be a disservice to Da 5 Bloods, which is a plenty interesting film all on its own.
After all, this isn’t strictly a Lee idea, though I have no doubt that the final product must be attributed in large degree to him. No, this was originally “The Last Tour”, a spec script that at one point was down to be directed by Oliver Stone, and I’m sure if that had been the case that it would not have been as POC-centric as it turned out to be. Lee’s involvement, and the way in which the script (by Lee, Kevin Wilmott and with original authors Danny Bilson and Paul de Meo still credited) was turned into its current form, had the potential to make Da 5 Bloods a transcendent experience, one that could run the gauntlet between commentary on America’s war in Vietnam, the struggle of veterans from that conflict, and the status, today and then, of the black race in the United States. Was Lee able to pull that off, or would Da 5 Bloods prove an exercise in diluted messages?
Several decades after their experiences as a unit in the Vietnam War, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) return to the country, nominally to search for the remains of their beloved comrade “Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman) for repatriation, but also to find a cache of CIA gold they buried before they left the country. The hike into the Vietnamese wilderness will bring up many painful memories and repressed emotions, not least Paul’s issues with his tag-along son David (Jonathan Majors). And that’s all before a maelstrom of violence descends on the group, originating from both outside forces and their own unresolved trauma.
There is so much going on in Da 5 Bloods that it’s kind of hard to know where to start, but lets try and parse the film down to its main plot elements. The first is that of a sort of war movie, and a war movie about a conflict that still rages in many ways, especially on a cultural level. I say sort-of because it certainly isn’t your traditional Vietnam tale. Between modern remembrances and a series of flashbacks, we see the experience of the “Bloods” this small unit that got caught up in a gun battle over a pile of gold in the middle of the jungle. Not all of them made it back, and now, decades later, the veterans of yesteryear return looking for understanding and catharsis.
There are better depictions of combat in Vietnam, but that’s not really Lee’s point here. It is instead an examination of the black GI’s particular experience in Vietnam, a war they fought on behalf of a country that seemed to detest their existence, something that many of them only fully realised long after they were obsessed solely with survival. With MLK, Malcolm X, riots and oppression occurring back home, black men were handed guns and sent into the jungle to kill people they had no quarrel with, and while they may have performed the task with a degree of duty, Lee’s depiction is that of a unit tired of being the fall guy, the one called upon to shoot, and dangerously close to turning their weapons on their perceived oppressors. Boseman’s Norman, who doesn’t make it home from Vietnam, becomes a highly idealised figure in the men’s remembrances, their leader, their pastor, their black liberation teacher and conscience. Combat scenes are brief but engaging, and always form a thought-provoking comparison to the group in modern Vietnam. The return to battlefields of the 70’s are emotional and affecting.
The modern trek through the country is the second part of the film to consider, and also its meatiest. This is an examination of a bond forged in combat put under renewed stress, with the instigating point being the search for long-buried gold. It is not a new thing to depict how slowly expanding greed can tear apart relationships, not even in the context of a war film (Triple Frontier was a recent example from the same streaming site; another obvious influence is The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, which is referenced directly), but Lee does it very well here. Each of the four men have their own hang-ups, be it Otis’ relationship with old Vietnamese girlfriend Tien (Le Y Lan) or Eddie’s revelation that he is in chronic debt. These problems, and the difficulties that each of the four men have with each other, all begin to bubble up, and when the gold is found, boil over.
And they aren’t alone either, with numerous Vietnamese characters, and even a few French, all out for their bit of the take as well. In many ways, Lee’s film presents the Vietnam War boiled down to a microchasm in this little re-run in the modern day jungle. There’s the American GI’s there for impure reasons, and their offspring whose lives have been indelibly impacted by a war they never directly experienced. There’s Vietnamese who were on their side, whether it is for their own profit like the tour guide, or at least partially for more emotive reasons, like Tien. There’s the French entrepreneur out to make some money in the country, like the colonialist overlords of old. There’s the younger French women, a clear representation of the the other, guilty and shamed, side of that colonial coin. And there are the Vietnamese opposed to the American presence, and who will do what they have to to put a stop to it. They all think they are owed, in different ways, and while it is on a smaller scale, it is much the same battle that was waged nearly 50 years ago.
In this, Da 5 Bloods also becomes a very potent examination of PTSD. All four of the men have it, in different ways. They all dive for the ground when some firecrackers are set off near them, but their trauma experiences are also obviously unique.This is most obvious in the case of Paul, with Delroy Lindo putting in an all-star performance as a man with severe self-loathing and equally severe mental health problems, whose obsession with finding the body of Norman is matched by a second-half obsession with securing the gold, whatever the cost, an obsession driven by a broken mind. Paul rises slowly to become the main focus of the picture, in numerous heart-breaking scenes: trying to justify his wearing of a MAGA cap to his comrades (he uses the word “gook” with abandon); having a terrifying panic attack in a Vietnamese river market; holding innocent people at gunpoint in a deranged effort to redeem his past failures. Late on Lee simply sets the camera on Lindo and lets him talk, a mix of insanity and breaking the fourth wall, as he sets out his philosophy, his desires and his insistence that he will no longer be the victim of society, in moments that will surely lead some to think on Marlon Brando in similar surrounds. It’s a startlingly raw performance from Lindo, that is sure to go down as one of the best of the year.
This is not to say that the others are in his shadow either. This is a marvelously acted movie, with Lindo, Peters, Lewis and Whitlock Jr exhibiting the easy camaraderie of a veteran “Big Red One” military group that have been through so much together, and matching it with a hardness in their demeanor in other scenes. The playful bantering, the serious discussions on race and the war, the arguments, the fights, they all come across so well-realised that you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that the cast did serve in Vietnam (they didn’t as far as I am aware, with Peters a known anti-war activist at the time). They jump between deadly serious to comedic banter so effortlessly that such tonal shifts are easy to accept. In this the early scenes, where the four meet in a hotel lobby and settle into familiar back-and-forth, are critical, ahead of the gradual disintegration that will occur later.
One should not discount slight outsider Jonathan Majors, as Paul’s son who tags along out of both worry for his father and a desperation to repair their fragile relationship, either. He adds a unique perspective having missed the war, but being a victim of it in other ways, through the anger of his father and, well, in some of the more physical remnants left behind “in country”. There are a good few others who pop up in vital, but less eye-catching roles: we’ve mentioned Lan as Otis’ former lover already; Johnny Tri Nguyen as the groups Vietnamese tour guide, whose has seen a lot more in his life than he’s willing to let on; Jean Reno as the French middle-man with his own interests, and Melanie Thierry as a French woman whose anti-mine NGO is unwittingly drawn into the toxic mission for the gold
The third and last part of the production to talk about is its approach to the current plight of the black race in America. Here, things do get a bit muddled, and if Da 5 Bloods has a key flaw, it is in the director’s unwillingness to adhere to a narrative structure, cutting away time and again to take in MLK speeches, Trump, pictures of Crispus Attucks, etc (if it has another, it’s in its somewhat throw-away female characters, and an ill-advised quasi romance sub-plot involving two characters who didn’t need it). Lee has been telling this sort of story since he started as a director, and BlacKkKlansman had similar problems.
The effect can be as much eye-catching as it is a little tiresome: one feels that Lee does not have enough faith in his actual film to get the point across, and so needs to be blunter. What should be a stirring moment of sacrifice, made by one character near the conclusion, is somewhat ruined by an earlier nod to a similar historical event that occurred in reality for example. The modern movement is given a scene near the conclusion, and while it is no unworthy thing to call attention to that movement, the manner in which Lee does so occasionally makes Da 5 Bloods a clunkier, and preachier, experience than it really has to be.
But of course this film is all about the welfare of the black race, whether it was in the 70’s or whether it is today. The point is made, with Attucks, that black men and women have been giving their lives for the United States since before it really existed, yet remain second class citizens. The terrible events that shaped Paul, Otis, Eddie and Melvin into the men they are would have been far less likely to have ever occurred to their white equivalents. The country they are aiming to go back to is still one where an overly-militarised police force will routinely kill them for petty, or non-existent, crimes. The leader of the country is viciously mocked and criticised on the few occasions he comes up, “the Klansman President”. This might explain the occasionally viciousness and desperation to get home with the gold, even when it becomes obvious that its presence is the cause of much of their disasters.
Lee directs a brilliant looking film. War flashbacks are very traditional in style, almost a homage, or even parody, of the famous films of this sub-genre (they even have an era-appropriate aspect ratio), but it is in the depiction of modern Vietnam – from the swirling cooperate lights of Ho Chi Minh City (now replete with American fast-food chains, noted by one character as a much better way of conquering the country) to the rustic isolation of the countryside – that Lee demonstrates the full extent of his eye (though of course, large parts of it is actually Thailand). There’s a great deal of variety in the cinematography too: soaring pans, stage-like framing of crucial moments, an encroaching claustrophobia in jungles, repeated confessional style interview shots and idealised, almost propaganda-like, poses.
One scene in particular deserves some additional attention, occurring around the midpoint and involving the group inadvertently stumbling into a live minefield. The scene plays out in a variety of different ways: a brutal, and fraught, argument between the group; a shocking moment of body horror; a remarkably tense rescue effort that also serves as a potent evolution in one relationship; and then a sudden, and totally unexpected swerve in its conclusion. It’s a masterful composition of genres, emotions and performances, and is the best scene of the film: high praise, considering how good the rest of it is.
There are interesting choices all round in other places, not least the decision to have the four men also be part of the war flashbacks, with a nary a deep-fake to be found: this adds, subtly and effectively, to the impression that they remain stuck in the Vietnam War, unable to escape their experience to the extent that they envision their modern selves to still be there. Lee’s previously used pan-out/conveyor belt shots make an appearance, and one must be struck by the repeated use, even in written descriptions of archive footage, of the word “Da” in favour of “The”. Da 5 Bloods might occasionally betray a bit of a muddle in its visual style similar to the muddle of the larger film already discussed, but it is certainly never boring to look at.
Da 5 Bloods is a vitally important movie right now. That is beyond question. It is a searing reminder of past crimes against minorities in America, and a uncomfortable reminder that such crimes remain ongoing in present day society. It challenges the audience at every turn, and the solutions that it seemingly advocates will be unpalatable for some. But it’s so captivating, stemming from a place of genuine anger and frustration, that bleeds into every line of dialogue and every frame. Its central cast are doing what may be career-best work, especially Lindo, and are ably supported by others. The narrative is an engaging affair that walks the line between a PTSD-driver war memoir and an examination of the poisonous nature of mental ill-health and greed. The film overflows with enough ideas, and strands of ideas, that it undoubtedly becomes a bit unwieldy and messy at times, but such flaws can be forgiven. It’s a film you can’t take your eyes off of, for its whole 150 minute running time. This is a film to go perfectly with modern-day events in the supposed United States, and comes highly recommended. Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear: Black Lives Matter.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).