Directed By Spike Lee
Starring – Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters
The Plot – The story of four African American Vets; Paul (Lindo), Otis (Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) who return to Vietnam. Searching for the remains of their fallen Squad Leader (Chadwick Boseman) and the promise of buried treasure, our heroes, joined by Paul’s concerned son (Majors), battle forces of Man and Nature, while confronted by the lasting ravages of The Immorality of The Vietnam War.
Rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language
– History Spiked. Part of what I’ve always loved about Lee’s presence as a filmmaker is his fortitude to break conventions while documenting events in history that are factually forgotten by those who write it, and “Da 5 Bloods” is certainly no different in this regard. Lee’s strongest quality here feels focused on the forgotten voices of the black population who were shipped off to war with the promise of freedom when they returned, and receiving considerably less than they bargained for. Without ever sounding preachy or one-directional, like some of Lee’s earlier films, his commentary here feels like it’s aiming at a real enemy that exists on our own domestic soil that we as a country and people have never confronted to this day. What’s poignantly riveting about this point is how socially relevant it currently stands with the injustices to the Black Lives Matter movement, highlighting proof that even fifty years after the story’s setting took place, so very little has changed as a result of sacrifice and solitude to America’s biggest business.
– Deeper meaning. Even beneath the material that is every bit physically unnerving as it is mentally unsettling, Lee still injects a side of deep metaphorical clarity beneath the many character names and motto’s that this band of brothers preserves, giving meaning to something that is otherwise never thought of beyond its initial instance. The names of each of the 5 Bloods in present day, Paul, Melvin, Otis, Eddie, and David, are the individual names of the five members of the vocal group, The Temptations, one of Lee’s all time favorite music acts. To solidify this coincidence, the name of their fallen soldier in the past timeline is named Norman. Songwriter Norman Whitfield produced virtually all of The Temptations music during their Motown prime. Beyond that, each cast member playing the bloods was previously in another Spike Lee joint, bringing together the past with the present in the same vein as the movie’s plot.
– Experimental editing. Easily my favorite aspect of the film, as well as Lee’s overall filmography in four decades of filmmaking, is the stitched together real life footage that finds its way into his films when he needs to prove a point. Including it here not only balances the narrative smoothly, but also gives the movie a documentary-style quality that transcends the screenplay as an act of fiction. There’s an immersive quality to it that pits us the audience in the circle of the group, primarily when characters are exchanging photos, and it cuts to the picture itself to show us what they are seeing. It proves that as a visionary, very few match Lee’s level of articulance when it comes to the psychology that goes into his visuals representing the dialogue, marrying them in a way that doesn’t allow a single line of dialogue to go unnoticed. It outlines a unique editing device that is visually unlike anything and anyone else making movies today, and with the addition of the dates included for context, take us through a brunt history lesson while taking in as much as possible about the film’s exposition.
– Major Lindo. There’s so much credit deserved to the men’s club ensemble that makes up a majority of the picture, but none more prominent than that of Delroy Lindo as Paul. This is without question my favorite performance of 2020, not just because Lindo’s usual charisma is on display at the forefront of a complex character, but also because Lindo rides through a wave of traumatization that slowly opens itself up the longer he resides in this island where he shed so much blood and violence, emitting these demons that were once secluded but have since resonated because of Paul’s unfinished business. There’s times when you can’t take your eyes off of the character, and others when his direct dialogue at the screen makes it feel personal towards us because of the way he commits to every line. Chadwick Boseman also makes the most of a minimal opportunity, sharpening the same kind of bravado and heart that have made him one of the elite in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One gut-wrenching scene between he and Lindo during the movie’s climax is easily my favorite scene of the movie, and alludes to more of the bond between them that I wish the movie focused on more.
– Strong action set pieces. The battle sequences are scattered throughout the film’s two and a half hour run time, but when they do pop up, we are treated to finely crafted sequences that rumble with authenticity. The handheld camera movements give an on-ground experience that immerses us through the abundance of smoke and bullets that whiz by us without warning, and the urgency outlined by Lee illustrates the vulnerability of the situation that makes each moment feel unpredictably ominous even when we know who is alive in present day. Thankfully, nothing is POV, or requiring of cheap shaky camera effects to illustrate the dangers of its environment, instead balancing a sharp stinging sound design and a patient editing consistency that solidifies Lee as an all time master craftsman, and the movie a ringing endorsement for an unnecessary war.
– Ambitiously earned run time. At 155 minutes, “Da 5 Bloods” is easily Lee’s most ambitious project to date, but also one deserving of its lengthy investment because of important material that shouldn’t be rushed or trimmed even slightly. Aside from the vantage point of each of the soldiers that have physically left this war, but mentally never have, the material tackles black soldiers in Vietnam who went against their will, as well as the idea of race in general playing into the strategy of foreign countries at war. For instance, the north Vietnamese exploiting the turbulent racial divide that was prominent for the time, and using it as a wedge to motivate them towards possibly abandoning the war. It brings forth several focal points that I hadn’t even considered, and fleshes them out in a thought-provokingly satisfying manner that avoids abbreviation that would otherwise feel weighed down by everything the script has to say.
– Technical perks. There is no shortage of things to rave about from the film’s technical aspects, which elevate the presentation of the film beyond its straight-to-streaming opportunity. The first is the grainy cinematography cut together by Newton Thomas Siegel. Together with Spike, Siegel has crafted a specific look for this film that attains three different aspect ratios that takes us through the multiple timeline storytelling. When the movie is in current day, it begins with a 2:39.1 ratio, bringing black bars above and below what is taking place in frame to keep attention where it firmly belongs at all times. Once it switches in the jungle, it becomes a 16:9 ratio, which basically means it fills up the entire screen to capture the immensity of the jungle itself. Finally, the movie moves to flashback sequences, involving 1:33.1 and on 16 mm film. This gives the sequences a gritty and outdated quality that allows it to stand out when compared to the digital film that the rest of the movie is shot with. All of these visually convey some different set of feeling and circumstance within the context of the film, and transform as much as possible between these two distinct time periods that eventually merge together psychologically as one consistent direction moving forward.
– Respect to the classics. Lee is like any filmmaker who has been influenced by the films he grew up on, and those influences come to life in creatively deposited ways that begin with the classical musical score by Terrence Blanchard, a mainstay in the Spike Lee collaborators over the years. There’s a very lush, surreal quality to the compositions that reside over the scenery of the jungle dominated imagery, as well as Vietnam as a whole towards depicting in ways rarely captured in film. For me, I heard a great distinction towards the classic treasure heist film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” that bared resemblance to Blanchard’s creativity without blatantly ripping the former movie off unapologetically. Aside from this, it’s the clever throwbacks to “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon”, two of the best depictions of the Vietnam War, that works its way into the similar directions within this film, allowing Lee to tip his hat to those predecessors that inspired him to conjure up his own riveting chapter.
– Imbalance of time. For my money, I could’ve used more time devoted towards the war side of the story, which wears off completely after the movie’s opening act. I feel like more time spent witnessing what these soldiers were like before traumatization set in. This would’ve not only added to their deserved empathy, which goes mostly unfulfilled because of their brute exteriors, but also would’ve done wonders establishing their chemistry before we are shown them in present day. Speaking of which, the characterization is entirely uneven throughout, with Otis and Paul being fully fleshed out, and Melvin and Eddie feeling like third and fourth wheels on a story that gives them zero subplots. On the subject of the characters, I also didn’t care for the decision to leave the ensemble untouched in make-up or de-aging in scenes taking place fifty years prior. I can understand that the intention is to solidify that these four grew old while Norman died young, but it constantly felt like an unnecessary distraction in immersing myself back into the 70’s, and made the whole movie feel like no aging took place over fifty years of time passing between them.
– Giving it away. There’s a couple of instances during the film’s set-up before the group prepares to re-enter the jungle that gives away more than a few instances of foreshadowing that spoils the events of what follows. Without spoiling it entirely, I will give one lone instance involving Paul’s son meeting a landmine tech that is here to defuse Vietnam landmines left unattended. Because of the spontaneous nature of her job, as well as her convenient timing with being introduced and interacted on by our ensemble of protagonists, we know what’s inevitably coming, and it leaves very few moments of surprise for a third act that for me was definitely the weakness within this three act structure.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+