Da 5 Bloods


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Da 5 Bloods
"There's a lot of interesting stuff here and the potential for a powerful film. This is Lee in quirky mode, however, empowered by Netflix to do pretty much whatever he wants and quickly losing his focus."

Today, the Vietnam War movie is a genre in itself. Stories of the war have been presented in cinemas so many times, in so many ways, that one could be forgiven for thinking one has seen it all - and, indeed, for those of us who don't remember the war itself, the chances are that these images form the basis of our impressions of what happened in it. But something is missing. How many of the Vietnam War films that spring to mind for you featured African Americans? If they did, were those characters anything more than sidekicks? A third of the US troops in the actual war were black. Their stories have been systematically erased. In this film, Spike Lee attempts to set things right.

Though heavy on the flashbacks, this film is set after the war itself - decades after, in fact, as four former soldiers - one of them sporting a MAGA hat - reunite for a return trip. Back in the day, they were sent on a secret mission to recover gold bars lost in a plane crash - money considered more important than their lives. Led by their commander Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman, oozing charisma in his penultimate screen role) they decided instead that they would hide the gold, declare their mission a failure and eventually return to retrieve it. Though some of them were thinking of their own interests first,, for most, this wasn't about greed. It was about reparations - about justice.

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Returning now to hunt for their buried treasure, the four of them - Paul (Delroy Lindo), who is still seething with anger at what was done to them; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr, who manages his pain through humour and lighthearted mischief; Eddie (Norm Lewis) who has managed to thrive against the odds in white Capitalist society; and Otis (Clarke Peters), the calm everyman figure who provides an anchor point for the audience - are joined by a fifth blood, Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors). They find a very different country - one where they are welcomed and treated with a degree of sympathy, though it's clear that part of what appeals to the locals is their money and that people there still hold very different views about the war. For Otis, there is an additional legacy to deal with, as he reconnects with hard-headed old flame Tien (Le Y Lan), whose help they will need to get their treasure out of the country, and meets his daughter for the first time - a young woman who, in a different context, has also had to spend her whole life dealing with racism.

There's a lot of interesting stuff here and the potential for a powerful film. This is Lee in quirky mode, however, empowered by Netflix to do pretty much whatever he wants and quickly losing his focus. The result is a work that often feels scattershot, awkwardly strung together and uneven in tone. It might have helped if he hadn't tried to take on quite so many issues at once. The plethora of subplots, which include David falling for a French landmine charity worker (Mélanie Thierry) and a group of Vietnamese criminals trying to steal the gold for themselves (arguably also a form of reparation, though they are treated less sympathetically) take up too much space, even with the film's bloated running time, so that we see too little of the film's stronger elements, such as Paul's simultaneous political awakening and emotional breakdown. Lindo is excellent but can only do so much with the time he has.

In addition to all this, Lee makes extensive use of cinematic references, some of which are more successful than others but many of which contribute to unbalancing the tone. More successful is his use of archive clips. He never attempts to hide his political point-making and his work is stronger for it. As far as the main narrative is concerned, there are some entertaining action set pieces and some poignant moments of human connection, but they are too few and far between. The film is badly in need of an editor. Parts of it are brilliant; other parts, frankly, tedious or undercooked. One hopes that it will pave the way for other filmmakers to explore some of these issues, but in itself, it falls short of the mark.

Reviewed on: 27 Dec 2020
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Da 5 Bloods packshot
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.

Director: Spike Lee

Writer: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee

Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Nowm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Mélanie Thierry

Year: 2020

Runtime: 154 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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