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Schultz reviews: 'Da 5 Bloods'

Schultz reviews: 'Da 5 Bloods'

Carl Schultz

“Da 5 Bloods”   Distributed by Netflix, 154 Minutes, Rated R, Released June 12, 2020:

Any new film from director Spike Lee is a cause for celebration among movie fans:  

Not only does Lee remain the most reliable arbiter of our nation’s moral and ethical boundaries--he’s also able to present his ideas in a manner which is sufficiently innovative to please the critics while still entertaining enough to be attractive to the mainstream moviegoing audience.  Spike Lee as a filmmaker has a way of challenging the viewer...while the viewer is too entertained to realize he’s being challenged.  

Lee’s new picture, “Da 5 Bloods,” is not a disappointment.  In fact, with the new picture the director rises above his perch on the vanguard of modern cinema and the cutting edge of contemporary culture to join the immortals of epic filmmaking--David Lean, Francis Coppola, John Huston...and yes, even the vilified and excoriated D.W. Griffith, who despite the controversy which has always surrounded his best-known picture was also responsible for some of the very first cinematic epics.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four aging former American GIs--all successful and prosperous businessmen, all African-American--return to the jungles of Vietnam to locate the remains of a fallen comrade...and simultaneously recover a cache of lost CIA gold they’d discovered five decades earlier, after being deployed on the suicide mission which claimed their friend’s life.  

The fifth Blood--Sgt. Norman Earl Holloway, “Stormin’ Norman” to his friends--was cut down by an enemy sniper during the 1971 mission and buried by the Bloods in an unmarked grave in the jungle.  In the half-century since his death, Norman has become an iconic figure to the men--”Our Malcolm and our Martin,” an almost Christ-like countenance in the Bloods’ collective memory.  The survivors intend to recover Holloway’s remains and have them reinterred in a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Originally written in 2013 by “Company of Heroes” screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the basic plot of “Da 5 Bloods” looks like it might once have been intended as a standard adventure film not unlike 1970’s “Kelly’s Heroes.”  But filtered through the sensibilities of Spike Lee and his occasional writing partner Kevin Willmott--a University of Kansas film professor who’s also collaborated with Lee on the scripts for both “BlacKkKlansman” and 2015’s “Chi-Raq”--the picture instead becomes Lee’s epic vision of the Vietnam Experience...and possibly the director’s masterpiece.

Containing elements of war movies from “The Bridge on the River Kwai” to “Apocalypse Now,” “Da 5 Bloods” is at heart a reimagining of John Huston’s 1948 masterpiece “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” in which a trio of impoverished prospectors are driven to inhuman measures by their quest for and discovery of gold.  One of the characters in “Da 5 Bloods” even echoes the celebratory dance performed by actor Walter Huston in the 1948 picture when discovering the gold...and later, another reprises that movie’s most iconic line:  ”We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.”

Like all Spike Lee’s pictures, “Da 5 Bloods” is filled with the director’s signature cinematic flourishes.  Especially during the film’s opening segments, when a character makes a historical reference a period photo or film clip is helpfully displayed onscreen.  But far from being pretentious, coy, or a personal conceit, such embellishments are Lee’s way of explaining the historical relevance of the scene or the exchange, as well as emphasizing the importance to contemporary culture of the ordinary individual and placing our own contemporary priorities, values, and even our feelings and emotions into the context of history.

Although epic in vision and scope, “Da 5 Bloods” is a work of enormous intimacy and personal moments.  If Lee’s picture contains a message, it’s not an encouraging or reassuring one, although good does triumph in the end over evil, in a fashion.  Apparently along with other Western priorities, values, luxuries, and commercial goods exported by the Americans during the Vietnam War, we shared our intolerances and prejudices--both the racial and xenophobic varieties.  

During the picture, one of the men learns for the first time that after his tour of duty he left behind an Amerasian child--a brown one, who because of skin color has been vilified and persecuted by Vietnamese society.  Even the returning Bloods are troubled with a form of bigotry:  During one scene the men are perplexed by the sullen behavior of one Vietnamese man...until one of the Bloods explains, “He knows what ‘gook’ means.”  And when their French connection requests a larger slice of the treasure, the man patiently endures from the Bloods a salvo of nationalistic abuse.  His measured response--a subdued “Vive La France.”

“Da 5 Bloods” also contains director Lee’s signature flashes of dark humor.  While the individual Bloods were united in war, during peacetime they’ve grown in different directions--personally, professionally...and politically.  In middle age, the men find to their surprise that they cannot even fully agree on their opinion of the present occupant of the Oval Office.  And toward the end of the picture, as Delroy Lindo’s haunted Paul finally succumbs to madness he pointedly, and significantly, pulls on a red MAGA ballcap.

Among the actors playing the five Bloods, Clarke Peters as Otis and Isiah Whitlock, Jr. as Melvin are probably the most familiar to audiences, as a result of their appearances on the popular HBO series “The Wire.  Norm Lewis as Eddie is a prolific stage actor who’s appeared in major roles in the Broadway productions of “Chicago,” “Les Miserables,” and “Porgy and Bess.”  Jonathan Majors, who also appeared in 2018’s  “White Boy Rick,” plays David, the estranged son of one of the Bloods, who follows his dad to Vietnam ostensibly for reasons related to reconciliation but in fact in pursuit of a piece of the action.

In a sort of extended cameo appearance during the movie’s frequent flashback sequences, movie superstar Chadwick Boseman appears as the martyred fifth Blood, Norm.  It’s a plum role, invested with a sort of reverence richly enhanced by Boseman’s effortless natural charisma.  During one significant scene, Boseman as Norm is photographed from a low angle framed by the sunset, which creates a nimbus around his head.  Viewers will also note that the first names of the picture’s main characters correspond with the 1960s and 70s vocal group The Temptations and their producer Norman Whitield...although the movie’s song score is weighted toward Marvin Gaye.

But the real star of “Da 5 Bloods” is Delroy Lindo as Paul, the member of the reunited Bloods most troubled by PTSD (“I don’t do that ‘sit in a circle and whine about s**t’ thing,” he notes at one point).  Long-noted for his rock-solid supporting performances in character roles in films from “Get Shorty” in 1995 to “The Cider House Rules” in 1999 to a voice in the Disney/Pixar movie “Up” in 2009, Lindo has rarely called attention to himself with his roles--the actor disappears so completely into his characterizations that audiences might’ve presumed he simply was what he was playing.

And the actor’s performance in “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception.  Lindo disappears into his role of the troubled, haunted Paul in a way that the better-known actors considered for the role, including Samuel L. Jackson, could not have been:  Audiences might never have forgotten Jackson was a celebrity practicing his profession.  Lindo is successful in his characterization not only because of his superb acting, but because despite a motion picture career which dates from 1976, he’s still only well-known to a relative handful of movie fans.

Critically, “Da 5 Bloods” is earning reviews which are among the best of Spike Lee’s career.  Rotten Tomatoes reports an approval rating of 92% while Metacritic assigns a weighted average score of 82%, indicating universal acclaim.  Rotten Tomatoes notes, “Fierce energy and ambition course through ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ coming together to fuel one of Spike Lee’s most urgent and impactful films.”  The film, incidentally, was not diverted by the coronavirus pandemic from a theatrical release--rather, from February 2019 forward “Da 5 Bloods” was intended to be distributed by Netflix for online streaming.

“Da 5 Bloods” becomes not only Spike Lee’s take on the Vietnam War, but also comments on the nature of brotherhood, love, loyalty, heritage, family, history, tradition, and honor, all united by supremely moving performances by a talented cast, a talent crew of film technicians and artisans, and inspired direction.  The filmmaker doesn’t have all the answers--he doesn’t pretend to, and never has.  But as always, nobody clarifies the questions and their relevance to society better than Spike Lee.

Filmed on authentic locations in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Chiang Mai, Thailand, “Da 5 Bloods” is rated R for strong violence including grisly images related to war, and for pervasive language concerns throughout.

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