The following is a review of Da 5 Bloods — A Spike Lee Joint.
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a war film about the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on four African-American war veterans — Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), Otis (played by Clarke Peters), Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and Paul (played by Delroy Lindo) — collectively known as the ‘Bloods.’ Now, decades after the war has ended, the Bloods have returned to Vietnam to retrieve what they left behind in the jungle. They claim to only be back to retrieve the body of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman), but they also want to find the precious gold bars that they had to leave behind when they were young men.
As I was watching Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods for the first time, I kept on thinking back to a scene from the incredible Apocalypse Now-documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. I had just watched the documentary twice over the course of the previous week or so. In said scene, a 14-year-old Laurence Fishburne, who starred in Apocalypse Now, sits on the ground, seemingly without a care in the world, and says: “The whole thing’s really fun. I mean, war is fun. Shit. You can do anything you want to. That’s why Vietnam must have been so much fun for the guys that were out there”. Fishburne went on to describe a Vietnam War veteran he knew, who Fishburne describes as a ‘dope smoker’, and quotes the veteran as having said: “Vietnam was the best thing they could’ve done for my ass.” That sense of ‘fun’ and ‘satisfaction’ differs strikingly from the kind of behavior that we see from characters like Paul in this film. Instead, we hear that it’s extremely difficult to be back where the war took place and that the act of returning home was also difficult. It is also very clear that the trauma of the war still haunts them.
Of course, that aforementioned Fishburne quote doesn’t accurately represent the mood of Apocalypse Now‘s main characters either. But if one thing is for sure, it is that Spike Lee’s film, for obvious reasons, references Francis Ford Coppola’s war masterpiece. It most definitely isn’t the only film that Lee references and his references aren’t exactly subtle. Richard Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ even plays as the Bloods get on a guided boat tour in Vietnam. In Apocalypse Now, it was used to highlight psychological warfare and ostentatious American showmanship. In Da 5 Bloods, that reference almost has a comedic effect. Generally, music is put to great effect in Spike Lee’s film. Terence Blanchard’s musical score is a great highlight, and I loved how Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ was put to use in Da 5 Bloods.
Spike Lee makes some interesting choices with Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s film makes use of previously captured footage of real events, and his film has several flashback sequences. To distinguish the different scenes from one another, he, for example, uses different aspect ratios and does what he can to make the flashback scenes look aged. However, unlike Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Spike Lee has not decided to de-age his actors in flashback scenes with visual effects, and he hasn’t decided to recast the older actors either. Instead, Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Norm Lewis, and Clarke Peters run around with the much younger Chadwick Boseman in the Vietnam War flashback scenes. This isn’t really very distracting, and I actually think it is a really smart move by Spike Lee. The surviving members of the Bloods are haunted by the war, they apparently all have PTSD, and the Vietnam War is an event that in many ways defined their lives. So, in a sense, they are still fighting that war. Now that they are back in Vietnam, it may, to some of them, feel like they never really left. And, in a way, the film is about their unfinished business from the Vietnam War. But this decision to not de-age or recast the veteran actors is smart for another reason as well, because now their appearance, when contrasted by Boseman’s, is a constant reminder that Stormin’ Norman never got to leave the jungle.
All of the trademark Spike Lee stylistic elements are found in Da 5 Bloods. Lee is patient with the use of his signature double dolly shot, in which he places an actor, or actors, on a dolly and moves the actors in the same direction that the camera is being dollied. This often achieves an almost dreamlike effect, as it looks like the actor is gliding around the room even though he or she isn’t moving. Here, I think, Lee uses his signature shot to capture euphoria, and when Lee finally made use of his signature shot, I had almost forgotten that it hadn’t been used up until that point. And, I would add, I think his signature shot definitely enhances the power of the scene it is used in.
This Spike Lee film will probably be a bit of a history lesson to some audiences, as it comes complete with propaganda posters that can knock you out, references that he insists that you notice, and images and footage of American acts of war. Lee frequently uses footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammad Ali, the horrors of the Vietnam War, and riots. This film was released on Netflix worldwide just a couple of weeks after the ongoing George Floyd protests started. These protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have, at the time of the film’s release, now gone global. As such, this film probably couldn’t have come at a better time. Whether intentional or by chance, the people in charge of the film’s release have chosen the exact right moment to release his film. There is even a scene that features members of the Black Lives Matter movement chanting. I think Lee is thoughtful and effective with the film’s topics and themes. One of the best scenes in the film features the Bloods reacting to the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and, frankly, I had never previously thought about the fact that American soldiers would learn about his tragic passing while fighting in the Vietnamese jungle. I think Lee does an amazing job of capturing their headspace in these moments.
This film has a uniformly good ensemble cast that also features actors such as Jonathan Majors, Mélanie Thierry, Jean Reno, Paul Walter Hauser, Veronica Ngo, and Jasper Pääkkönen. The major standout performance, however, is given by Delroy Lindo. Lindo plays Paul, a Vietnam War veteran and Trump supporter who suffers from PTSD. He has several incredible scenes here. He has a key role in a pivotal and incredibly tense scene involving a rope, which is all I’ll reveal about it. He also has two scenes where he monologues about his anger and pain that are completely engrossing. But I think his best scene is one that takes place on a boat, where he freaks out and lashes out at a Vietnamese vender. Delroy Lindo’s performance in these scenes is incredible, and the way that he acts out his character’s trauma is very moving and believable.
I think this is a great Spike Lee film, but there are some elements of note that I don’t think work as well as intended. I think that Da 5 Bloods is maybe ten to fifteen minutes too long, and you do feel the length of the film. I think there are some pacing issues in the final act of the film, even though it includes a moving monologue that probably should earn Delroy Lindo an Oscar nomination. At some point, the shoot-out towards the end of the film also feels slightly exaggerated. Although there are some very strong scenes that often make up for the predictability of the plot developments, there are some character reversals and reveals that you see coming from a mile away.
I don’t think Lee gets enough out of the decision to make Delroy Lindo’s character a Trump supporter. A ‘Make America Great Again-hat,’ sort of, becomes the symbol of the character, but I don’t think that Spike Lee managed to actually say enough about why Paul would be a supporter of him. It is made very clear just how influential Stormin’ Norman, who is described as the Bloods’ “Malcolm and Martin,” was on Lindo’s character, so I think the film should’ve explained Paul’s political stance a little bit better. Although this character information did allow for some dramatic tension between the main characters, I’m just not sure I believe that Paul would be such an ardent conservative voter that he would wear that hat proudly. One thing is for sure, though, Delroy Lindo, as mentioned earlier, sells the anger and pain that fuels his character.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this project would’ve probably just been an action-comedy about old-timers on a vacation to hunt for treasures. But Spike Lee has a lot on his mind, and he does not let the film be just that. Instead, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a great must-watch film about the African-American war experience and postwar trauma that feels incredibly timely.
8.5 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.