“Da 5 Bloods” Movie Review


da-5-bloods-movie-review-2020

     I can see where Spike Lee was going with this.  Black soldiers made up nearly one third of American forces in the Vietnam war, but were a little more than one tenth of the population at the time.  His new film, “Da 5 Bloods”, seeks to both honor and bring to light the contributions of the African-American community during the controversial war, while also denouncing the reasons we were there and the catastrophic repercussions our service men and women suffered as a result.  But this time, the Academy Award winning “Blackkklansman” director may have overindulged a bit.  Sure, a filmmaker has every right to utilize their platform to say what they want, but any sense of nuance is missing completely within a story that doesn’t really know what it wants to be.  The messaging is all over the place.

     At a bloated 2 hours and 35 minutes, Lee again utilizes a mix of present day plotting backed by flashbacks, and the infusion of documentary footage in order to bring context to what is otherwise five guys chatting about politics and where their lives have taken them decades after the war ended.  The screenplay was originally shopped to studios by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, while telling the story of four white Vietnam veterans.  Spike Lee and his co-writer Kevin Willmott, revamped the story to instead make the four main characters black, while undoubtedly infusing the dialogue with the kind of anti Trump vitriol all too common in today’s divisive and toxic cultural landscape.

     The over indulgence is never more apparent than when you listen to conversations where it is clear the writer has simply created characters who are all a direct reflection of themselves.  Although in a clever move, Lee crowns one of the story’s main characters with a bright red MAGA hat and allows him to interject our controversial President’s agenda into the conversation.  What rings true in these interactions is what virtually anyone who has served in the military already knows.  These characters share a bond strong enough to withstand their individual political views.  To them, their service and experiences together are more important than debating about things they can’t control anyway.

     Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) are veterans who have embarked on a present day trip back to Vietnam in order to collect and bring back the remains of one of their squad members who was killed in action during the war.  It’s a noble effort and one that any service or family member who has lost someone within the theater of war would understand.  But the foursome has something else on the agenda as well.

     As depicted in a series of flashback sequences that see the group still being played by their 60 plus year old selves, we learn of a mission taking them to a downed CIA plane with orders to retrieve important cargo they soon discover is a chest full of gold bars.  Their squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman) believes they should keep the gold for themselves and eventually use it to support their communities at home.  One of the central subjects of the film is the protesting and rioting going on in the United States of which every soldier in Vietnam is keenly aware of, thanks to enemy controlled radio stations who ensure black soldiers in particular are aware they're fighting for freedoms they do not enjoy in their own country.  It’s a valid and timely point.  One that would have hit home just fine without the filmmakers injected their personal opinions into each character’s voice.

     Eventually, “Da 5 Bloods” comes to a proverbial fork in the road and has to decide what story it wants to tell.  But instead of picking one, Lee’s film goes off into several different directions at once, resulting in a convoluted and at times unwatchable exercise in political fueled outcry.  What begins as a couple of guys talking about how white movie characters like those seen in “First Blood” and “Missing in Action” did nothing to indicate the contributions of black soldiers in the war, moves quickly into melodramatic father and son squabbles (Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) joins them mid way through), treasure hunts, shoot outs with the locals, and full blown PTSD episodes crossed with the same kind of anti Trump rhetoric anyone could get by simply watching CNN.  All of which completely overshadows why they went there in the first place.

     I would give anything to be on set when Isiah Whitlock Jr. delivers his hilarious “Sheeeeeeeeiiiiiittttt” line of which he is famous for. And seeing Clarke Peters back in compelling form instantly conjures memories of his standout performance as Detective Lester Freamon in “The Wire”.  It’s also a treat to see Delroy Lindo in such a weighty and important role where he brilliantly brings to life the struggles of a person who has seen too many things people should not have to see, while those around him have no idea how to help. 

     When you have a filmography including the likes of “Do the Right Thing”, “He Got Game”, “Clockers”, and the aforementioned “Blackkklansman”, the bar will always be at the highest level each time out. But beyond several notable performances, the film is a step down for a director who has given us so many classic and important films over a long career. GRADE: C