Saturday, June 13, 2020

Da 5 Bloods - Movie Review

The Movie: Da 5 Bloods

The Director: Spike Lee

The Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman, Lê Y Lan, Van Veronica Ngo

The Story: Four African-American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen Squad Leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.

The Review:
Spike Lee's latest joint is perfectly timed to release during the strongest Black Lives matter movement in the history of our country. He's been telling us about what's really going on ever since the beginning of his career with Do the Right Thing which was basically him screaming to the world about exactly what we are still dealing with today. Racism, violence, police brutality, and systemic oppression. It's all right there in every one of his movies all the way back to Laurence Fishburne telling everyone to wake up in School Daze. Throw in Malcolm X which should have taken home every award available and there can really be no argument about the quality of Mr. Lee's resume as a voice of the people.

A few years prior to Do the Right Thing, British director John Irvin brought the Vietnam war movie Hamburger Hill to the screen which featured some outstanding performances from Don Cheadle, Michael Boatman, and Courtney B. Vance. Now this wasn't necessarily a film about black soldiers specifically although some of the strongest moments of commentary come from the actors I mentioned and how their experience in Vietnam differed from the white soldiers. And now we have Lee's entry into the Vietnam canon although with a new twist as we see four men going back to Vietnam decades after their tour during the war.

We've seen Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris go back to Vietnam in bullet riddled attempts at rescuing POW's while maintaining the narrative of Vietnamese people as dehumanized villains so it was nice to see Spike take a completely different approach. His story is about a group of black men returning to find the remains of the fifth member of their group as well as a stash of gold that had been left behind during a deadly firefight. Along the way, we learn about the men as well as the locals who they interact with along with lingering struggles and bad feelings between all parties.

One things the director really knows how to do is capture the nuances of racism from all sides and all angles not just black people which is one of the things that makes his films so interesting. When the men reach Vietnam, they run into circumstances where they are seen as villains by Vietnamese people who lost family members during the war although not in an all encompassing way. No one in the movie is any sort of blank caricature although Lee usually makes us work to get past the initial stereotypes to the point where we can see the humanity, backgrounds, and motivations of everyone across the board. Even the dynamics between the group of "Bloods" have many layers and the relationships aren't all high fives and happy times.

The one area that I feel the movie falls a bit short is in how the action is choreographed and filmed and even the score during these scenes falls short as it just sort of meanders through the moments rather than really kicking up the intensity. The action and I guess I will call them battle scenes are essential to the story yet they never seemed to fit in cleanly with the overall narrative. I think I mean that more from a technical film making perspective more than a story telling perspective so it doesn't really take away from the overall quality of the story, I just expected a stronger approach to all the action scenes.

Speaking of the score, Terrence Blanchard has been working in Spike Lee films since all the way back to School Daze as a performer and eventually taking over composing duties on Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing. His music always has a subtle strength and a feeling of nostalgia that has really become a signature sound and a hallmark for who he is as a composer. Outside of what I mentioned a moment ago, the score for this movie is beautifully done and fits right into the canon of Lee's catalog while also reinforcing both time periods that the movie is set in. There is also a heavy dose of Marvin Gaye in the soundtrack along with some Curtis Mayfield, The Spinners, and a few others.

As far as the acting performances, Delroy Lindo definitely stands out as he usually does although that wad really about it for me. Jean Reno is the one exception to what I talked about earlier as his character is about as generic and bland as could possibly be. I really got nothing from his performance other than an 80's Miami Vice style bad guy which maybe was intentional, but it just did nothing for me. I feel like Chadwick Boseman could have been used in a more effective way as his character is relegated to flashback scenes that don't give much room to really show deep down why he was such a revered friend and soldier.

One of the most interesting characters who I would have liked to see more of is Tiên Luu who was played by Lê Y Lan, a woman who Clarke Peters' character had and has a very interesting relationship with. In just a few scenes, she conveyed so much personality and history in her character, she would be my answer if Lee were to ever ask me who would be a good spin off to develop from the main story. I also enjoyed seeing Veronica Ngo bring the infamous Hanoi Hannah's real life radio personality to the screen.

If you don't know who that is, she was a Vietnamese radio personality who was known for making English-language broadcasts for North Vietnam intended to misinform and persuade US soldiers over the radio airwaves. Oh and if you don't know who Veronica is, go watch the beginning of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, she plays the bomber pilot and sister to Kelly Marie Tran's character.

The Verdict:
Da 5 Bloods is a solid entry into Spike Lee's incredible and incredibly important body of work. It does a lot of things well, but didn't pack as much of a punch as I was hoping and would have benefited from from trimming the two and a half hour run time. That being said, this is a movie you will want to watch and a movie you need to watch so do the right thing and give it a shot.

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