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‘Da 5 Bloods’ is a vivid, bombastic dissection of so much more than the Vietnam War

‘Da 5 Bloods’ is a vivid, bombastic dissection of so much more than the Vietnam War

‘Da 5 Bloods’ is a vivid, bombastic dissection of so much more than the Vietnam War
June 18
16:00 2020

“I’m as mad as everybody. All us Bloods got a right to be, but… We Bloods. Won’t let nobody use our rage against us. We control our rage.”

Decades after the Vietnam War, a group of veterans return to the country to hunt for not only a stash of gold worth millions, but the remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman).

On paper, this looks like a cookie-cutter plot for any B-level grindhouse flick “inspired” by the second “Rambo” or “Missing in Action”  movies. In fact, in some ways the main plotline riffs on “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” much like the characters. However, when it comes to Spike Lee, nothing is ever as simple as it seems on the page. This is also his newest film immediately after his 2018 hit, “BlackKklansman.”

Across its 164-minute runtime, “Da 5 Bloods” is many things — it’s a somber drama about dealing with the lingering ghosts of war, a treasure/heist film in the vein of “Three Kings” and an adventure film that harkens back to stuff like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” all at the same time. It’s also thematically quite dense, exploring the legacy of imperialism, the parallels between the past and present of Vietnam and America, and the impacts of racism combined with the toll the war took on the black men who served in it. It’s a lot to absorb, all of which Spike Lee delivers in his usual hammer-to-the-face subtlety, manic editing and blending of fiction with reality.

Lee goes especially hard in that last aspect, as the audience is told about the nonfictional exploits and atrocities of the war. Fair warning for the squeamish — real photos of corpses and graphic footage of people being killed are used here. As exploitative as it may seem, Lee makes a point about the emotional scars this left on Vietnam. These deaths shaped the country in the same way the death of MLK Jr. shaped the U.S. and these kinds of immoralities continue into the present day.

While not all Bloods are given equal screentime, each leaves a mark. First, there’s Otis, the heart and brain of the team, played by Clarke Peters from “The Wire” and “Three Billboards.” He’s confronting a lost love, the instability of his friends and his own grief regarding not only what happened in Vietnam, but what’s happened since in America. Delroy Lindo is also fantastic as Paul, and I’ll talk more about him in a second. Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis are also quite good as Melvin and Eddie, though they are the least developed of all the Bloods. Jonathan Majors also gets some good time to shine as Paul’s estranged son, David, a Black Studies professor who yearns for his father’s approval despite their constant fighting back home.

The standout, however, by far is Lindo as Paul. A bigoted, mood-swinging veteran with much on his mind, he becomes the emotional core of the movie. While his MAGA beliefs are mocked by the other characters, his concerns and trauma are treated with unwavering seriousness, and the film manages a complex balancing act of seeming sympathetic while also showing him at his most awful. He’s often an incredibly hostile man, yes, but he also is carrying the burden of awful experiences that both built him into the man he is while often breaking him into a volatile mess of a human being.

At the very least, Lindo’s performance deserves a nod from the Academy, even if they’re often anti-streaming. Best Actor material all the way.

Props also go to the supporting cast, especially Chadwick Boseman as Stormin’ Norman, their deceased squad leader. He gets maybe ten minutes of screen time, mostly in the first act, but he will be what is remembered from them.  Norman is described by Otis as “Our Malcolm and our Martin,” and Boseman absolutely sells it as an intellectual warrior delivering short philosophical monologues on the nature of Black America, even as news of MLK Jr’s assassination threatens to turn his team rogue. It’s very much the case of a not-often-seen character being elevated not only by how his friends talk about him, but by spellbinding the audience whenever he does show up.

Whenever the story goes back to the main characters’ firefights, the aspect ratio changes to a 4:3 with increased film grain and saturated colors. Fittingly, these sequences balance the melancholic remembrances of friends gone by with bombastic shootouts that do seem to draw influence from all kinds of war films like “The Green Berets” and more. Extra props to the editing team as well, as transitions can be seamless and smoothly jump back and forth between time periods.

The thrills don’t stop at the gunfights either, with some grabbing moments involving a tense standoff between the Bloods and a Vietnamese man scarred by the war and a handful of moments that just focus on the Bloods trying to navigate their character dynamics as the going gets brutal.

What might be the most experimental choice for these flashbacks, however, is keeping the actors portraying the present-day Bloods the same, without any makeup or CGI to de-age. Jarring as Lee’s decision may be, this tightens the connection between the Bloods in the past and them in the now. Half a century may have passed, but these are still the same men, haunted by what they’ve seen and done to people in those memories, which ties back into Lee’s choice to constantly intercut the story with news footage and photographs.

What might be the movie’s biggest flaw is also its biggest strength — the storytelling. Some twists are very obvious and choreographed, especially a death near the end of the second act, and the commentary paralleling the past and present can be hamfisted. Still, it’s a case where the strength obviously triumphs over the flaws, and as enthusiastically chaotic the movie can be, it remains the special kind of chaos that only Spike Lee can do.

“Da 5 Bloods” is an adventure into the heart of darkness worth pursuing. Its relevant commentary on American history combines with the emotional journey of its characters to create a captivating ride that will stick with audiences for a while. With this, “Chiraq” and especially “BlackKklansman,” I think Spike Lee has fully returned to form, re-energized and fully committed to dissecting the world around him —and that is beyond exciting.

Final rating: 4/5

Featured image: Courtesy Netflix

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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