Published on June 16th, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
Da 5 Bloods
Spike Lee is Hollywood’s latest auteur filmmaker to have been recruited by Netflix. His latest endeavor is a riveting, violent, and thought provoking old school epic.
Da 5 Bloods is a very complicated film to review. It’s stuffed to the brim with big questions, intersectional associations, complicated contradictions, dense themes, etc. It works all these elements of race, national identity, greed, class privilege, masculinity, and mental illness into the fabric of its narrative. It quickly becomes impossible to thoroughly untangle them, to dissect each idea and really ruminate on its success or failure as an artful evocation.
And I think that actually works to the film’s advantage. It’s so complicated that it becomes a kind of simple and breezy watch. Its thematic importance is so caked into every gesture and line and camera movement and cut and aspect ratio that the best way to really absorb it is to not approach it intellectually. The movie works best when one approaches it as a slow-burn thriller, a visceral experience of culminating tension. It’s actually when you let the movie just simply hit your eyeballs that all those thematic nuances pack the biggest punch.
Spike Lee has never exactly been known for his subtlety. But I think that actually may be an underrated aspect of his auteurship. His films have a tendency to be big and brash and ostentatious when they so desire. He’s never been one to hold back solely for the sake of it. But the best of Spike Lee always shows a very skillful approach to characterization and a knack for sneaking very topical and socially relevant subject matter into those character’s very pores in equal measure. Da 5 Bloods really hammers home that under-valued aspect of Lee’s artistry. It’s a film that is carried by textured social commentary, the kind that is worked into the very substance of the character’s motivations and actions. In fact, the parts of Da 5 Bloods that don’t quite land are the seldom moments of indulgent bravado where it seems Lee can’t help but point and scream at us, “This is important!” Or “This is supposed to be interesting!”
Thankfully, those moments are relatively few and mostly come in its rocky first act. The four surviving members of the titular Bloods, an all-black crew of G.I.s in ‘Nam, convene back in Saigon in present day to recover a suppository of gold they found 50 years earlier. The film contains fun and nuanced characterizations of these aging vets, though it falters with some shoehorned character development. A particular subplot involves one of the Bloods, Otis (Clark Peters), meeting up with an old flame and having this long conversation that too obviously points to the fact that they have a daughter together. It feels kind of empty in the moment.
Another subplot involves Paul (the impressive Delroy Lindo) being visited by his son who wants to join him on the expedition. It feels contrived, though ultimately becomes quite moving as the film evolves. But that’s just the thing…the film feels like its setting its table solely because it feels obligated to give these guys some conventional character-specific emotional tokens for the audience to latch on to. Ultimately, they feel a little peripheral, especially considering the film’s two and a half hour runtime.
Once the crew sets off on their journey into the jungle to recover the gold (as well as the remains of their fallen comrade, Stormin’ Norman), the film finds its footing. Overall, it has the feeling of those big epics of yesteryear in the sense of it having to just start somewhere in a bit of an awkward way. But much in the same way those old epics do, the film gains more and more momentum as we become more familiar with the characters and the interesting elements their plight collectively signifies. The dynamic between the bloods becomes a lot more relatable and familiar, building a kind of proxy relationship between them and the audience.
Spike also utilizes a clever flashback device in which we are shown grainy, footage of Vietnam combat with Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman and the aged versions of the characters playing their younger selves. This surreal juxtaposition of the past and present really hammers home the emotional toll that carries with a person after war, the ever-present nature of traumatic memory. It also develops their comradery with each other in a way that makes the film more endearing and engaging as we get to know them.
There’s a point in the film about halfway through where it shifts in tone dramatically. A truly shocking moment twists the entire excursion into a violent and cutthroat enterprise, one that tests the bonds they swore never to break. It kind of becomes a Vietnam-vet spin on the movie Deliverance with a splash of Treasure of Sierra Madre. It spirals into a grueling tale of survival and a punishment for greed, privilege, and a complicated relationship with who these men are what their gold really represents.
I think this turn really serves the film well. Rather than feeling out of place and forced, it feels very well developed. The first half of the film had me scratching my head as to what kind of movie Da 5 Bloods really was. But once it came into focus, all the little nuances of friendship, comradery, trauma, and regret come to a violent boiling point. It is a real whiplash of a turn for a movie of its ilk, but it feels like it was always meant to be that movie, it just needed to do its due diligence to making the themes and situations engaging and dimensional.
Spike really shows his versatility and originality of vision in this film, continuing his practice of combining narrative with documentary elements. He sets the scene quite well in the first few moments of the film with a moving montage illustrating the complicated paradox of black Americans fighting in Vietnam while their country has forsaken them back home. Lee isn’t afraid to pull up an image or stock footage from history to thoughtfully provoke. In a flashback of the Bloods finding out about Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Lee doesn’t hesitate to really characterize that moment in history, using archival footage and old photos of the infamous assassination to add weight. He also uses a narrative device named Hanhoi Hannah, a Vietnamese radio DJ who speaks out to Black G.I.s about the contradictory nature of their service. It’s certainly staged, but it feels historical and documentary-like, working ultimately to develop the socio-cultural moment over than the film’s central story. Though ultimately, you don’t have a story if you don’t fully develop that socio-cultural moment.
Da 5 Bloods is ultimately a triumph of a confluence of styles, tones, and thematic statements. It’s really a feat only Spike Lee could pull off. The film wears this compelling confidence on its sleeve, which goes a long way in getting you to take part in this long, unwieldy epic. Lee finds a really fresh way of doing a war film by approaching it through the survivors of war and the survivors of a world that was and still is unkind to people of color. It’s a film about chips on shoulders and how incredibly valid they are yet also how incredibly destructive they can be if one gives themselves to it. At the end of the day, I haven’t really seen anything quite like Da 5 Bloods. And that in and of itself is impressive—that Spike Lee is still finding interesting and invigorating approaches to telling stories about the issues that really move him.