At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Da 5 Bloods “2020”

MPAA Rating: R/Genre: War Drama/Stars: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Chadwick Boseman, Jean Reno, Veronica Ngo, Lê Y Lan, Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm, Sandy Hương Phạm/ Runtime: 156 minutes

I think it can be safely said that, over the course of the past three decades in the land of movie magic, film helmer Spike Lee is one who has managed to carve out quite the wonderful spot for himself courtesy of a filmography that might be quite divisive at times, but is also no less than truly riveting work. Indeed from his debut film She’s Gotta Have in 1986 It all the way to 2018’s BlacKkKlansman which managed to get Lee his first Oscar for directing, Lee has managed to time and time again deliver to audiences truly entertaining films that also, in some way or another, always had a thought provoking message at the heart of them about the state of the world at that time. Suffice it to say that with everything that was going on in the world back in 2020 it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the film I am reviewing today, 2020’s Da 5 Bloods, was soon dropped on Netflix and it had Spike Lee at the helm of it. Yet in case you were worried that Lee wouldn’t deliver with this film on the level that he had with both Chi-Raq in 2015 and BlacKkKlansman in 2018 then you can now put those fears to rest. I say that because Da 5 Bloods is absolutely fantastic. Indeed not only is the work behind the camera spot-on and the work in front truly powerful, but here is a slice of cinema that is a gripping, meaningful, and incredibly emotional journey that only a director of Lee’s caliber and talent could bring to audiences and have it work on the level that it ultimately does.

The plot is as follows: Da 5 Bloods gets its story underway in Ho Chi Minh as a quartet of guys, who all served together in the Vietnam War, are in the process of happily reuniting complete with plenty of hugs and brotherly quips about how each person looks and everything. The 4 men, we quickly learn, are Otis the fairly balanced team medic, the affable Eddie who put the money together for the whole trip, group joker Melvin who is using this trip as a way to get out of the day to day doldrums of married life, and team hothead Paul who, despite the war’s end all those years ago, still has quite the bitter and angry chip on his shoulder towards the Vietnamese people due in large part to untreated PTSD from his experiences the first time the group was over there. Yet even though the group has aged a fair degree to say nothing of the fact that Paul has also gone full-in on Donald Trump right down to rocking a red MAGA hat, much to his former brothers in arms’ shock, we see the reason the group has come back to Vietnam after all these years is because they are fulfilling a promise they made all those years ago. Namely they, reinforced with letters from both the U.S. Military and the government of Vietnam, are being given permission to locate the remains of their former squad leader and dear friend Stormin’ Norman and bring them back home to the States in order to be given a proper burial. Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that there is also an ulterior motive involved. It seems that in the course of a mission during the time they were serving in ‘Nam back in the day, the group found themselves in the middle of a fierce gun battle near a crashed U.S. aircraft. However, upon inspecting the inside of the plane, our group discovered a metal case full of gold bars that a certain intelligence agency (CIA) was aiming to use to fund military aid coming from South Vietnam. Yet rather than make sure it got where it was supposed to go, we learn that our group hid the gold and are now back to also reclaim their prize after all these years. To that end, we see that an old love of Otis’ from back then is able to help the men arrange a business deal with a slightly unscrupulous Frenchmen named Desroche in order to get the gold out of Vietnam without anyone being the wiser though not in a way that could be seen as legal by any means. It is with that settled that we see the group of men, complete with Paul’s estranged son David who has shown up out of concern for his dad’s psychological stability, makes their way into the jungle. Of course as we all know sometimes the best laid plans of mice, men, and gold hunting Vietnam vets don’t always work out the way they should. Suffice it to say this is most definitely one of those times.

Now from a structure and style point of view, it should be said that Da 5 Bloods is able to earn the runtime it is operating with courtesy of the distinct way it weaves its way through the grand scope that it is operating with. Indeed and in a manner similar to a lot of the other entries in Lee’s filmography, this slice of cinema has an experimental vibe about it. A vibe incidentally that permits for moments in the film to bring you into the “reel” world whilst also making statements about things that are occurring in the “real” world. Indeed in a rather artistic style similar to the works done by one Jean-Luc Godard, we see Lee make the choice to, instead of give us an straight line narrative, take part in a slightly contentious dialogue with you, the viewer that could at any point segue over to a picture of Crispus Attucks or remind you of something seen in Apocalypse Now (a feat the soundtrack incidentally doubles down with Ride of the Valkyries being played at one point). We also see Lee put in moments with the infamous Hanoi Hanna regaling the “soul brothers” listening on the radio with propaganda that really aims to question why they are fighting a war for a country that, by and large, really looks down on them that proves to be so effective that when a broadcast she gives also tells our main group about how MLK has just been shot, they really do start pondering about what kind of life they will all have upon returning to the States. Lee also gives the characters the chance to talk about other Hollywood slices of cinema like the first entry in Sly Stallone’s Rambo saga or even the Chuck Norris Missing in Action trilogy which in their own ways tried to paint the defeat endured by America in Vietnam into one that eventually gave way to a victory even as this film makes it abundantly clear by the end that there really was no winner in all of this madness. Thus with all of those elements, and the aforementioned main narrative thread at play, this slice of cinema might seem like a messy compilation of components with no connectivity about them, but the film does provide a wonderful cinematic glue in the form of beautifully melodic work courtesy of both Terence Blanchard’s musical accompaniment and songs from Marvin Gaye which come into play more in the back half of this film. A back half incidentally where we see Lee finally start peeling back some serious layers to show us just how messy and ugly combat, and its repercussions in the present day, can be. Indeed Lee shows he has no qualms about unnerving you with realistic yet gruesome moments of bodily harm whilst also conjuring up chillingly suspenseful moments like when a character figures out he has just stepped on an active land mine and the characters’ desperate attempt to get him off it without it killing him. A suspenseful sequence incidentally because not even ten minutes earlier the film has allowed us to see what happens to a person who steps on a landmine in a manner that is tragic yet visceral rolled into one. Plus even though the finale of the film, no spoilers, may feel like you are about to see a typical final shoot-out, Lee does a wonderful job of making everything that occurs not only feel as emotional as possible, but that it has a purpose to it as well. Suffice it to say that it might be a bit all over the place for some viewers, but for those of us who enjoy Lee and the cinematic endeavors he provides us with this is easily one slice of cinema where we couldn’t honestly ask for anything more because the work done behind the camera is top-flight in every sense of the word.

Now despite the fact that this slice of cinema is an ensemble film in every sense of the word and every single person in this truly gifted cast gives a truly fantastic performance no matter the amount of screen time they are given, there is no doubt in my mind that the complicated and fury-driven turn by Delroy Lindo in this as Paul is this film’s definitive acting MVP. Yes Lindo may have given a trinity of memorable turns in previous Spike Lee films from the 90s and yes Lindo is known for always bringing 110% to a part. With this slice of cinema however, I think we might have just see Lindo at his absolute best in the role of a man who loves his brothers, but is still very much tormented and in pain by the actions of his past to say nothing of prejudiced toward anything that is not American. Indeed it really does seem like every single moment he is a slowly burning firecracker just waiting for the chance to go off on someone for something. Yet perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the character isn’t the fact that he is just completely unable to come to grips with his past nor is it the fact that he refuses to be held accountable for anything he did as a younger man. Rather, it comes in the form of a moment in the film where Paul just loses it and goes off on a downright conspiratorial monologue/tirade about how the U.S. government just can’t seem to wipe him out only to then be given a rather unique opportunity in his darkest hour to come to grips with his demons that have haunted him for a long time. Indeed to see this angry man finally just break down and forgive himself even though he has long felt that he was not worthy of such forgiveness for the mistakes he made is just heartbreaking in the finest way possible. Suffice it to say that it may be a performance comprised of equal parts pain, guilt, and rage, but it also is easily one of the best performances given in a Spike Lee joint to date and that is saying quite a lot given the caliber of performance Lee is known for bringing out of his actors. Of course despite the fact that I took a minute to mention the work done exclusively by Lindo, I also feel that this section would be completely unfulfilled if I didn’t include the guy whose body our titular group has traveled all the way back to ‘Nam in order to find and bring back home to his sisters here in the States. Indeed rather than just be an objective to track down or just spoken about in reverent tones by the rest of the group, we see that this slice of cinema actually allows the character of Stormin’ Norman to appear in a collection of flashbacks where he is portrayed rivetingly by Chadwick Boseman. Yet I have to say dear reader as potent as his work was when this slice of cinema first came out, I think it is now absolutely enthralling and quite emotional in the aftermath of Boseman’s tragic and untimely demise from colon cancer in August of 2020. Indeed in Boseman’s more than capable hands, the character of Norman truly is a multifaceted leader who may possess immense skill with a firearm, but who also sees how precious life is and is always trying to pass along to the men under him a message of loving both each other and their fellow man as well. Yet perhaps the most potent aspect of this performance comes in the form of the final scene in which Boseman appears and which sees one of the group (not going to spoil who) has a vision of Norman coming to him from the afterlife with a mini-sermon of sorts on forgiveness and of letting go of the past once and for all. Indeed this may have been designed to be the most emotional spot in the film, but nowadays it’s one that feels almost divinely inspired to say nothing of powerful in the most heart wrenching way possible. Indeed there is no doubt that Chadwick Boseman was and always will be seen as one heck of an actor, but it’s performances like this which really help to show just how much of a talent he truly was.

All in all there is no denying that at the end of the day the 2020 slice of cinema that is Da 5 Bloods is another very much welcome and appreciated surge of electric cinema that Spike Lee knows how to channel in the best way possible to the viewer. Indeed here is a slice of cinema that may give off the vibe of being turbulent, but has a cinematic voice to it that is powerful in every sense of the word. Yes its narrative hook of a quartet of African American veterans returning back to the place that left them all affected in different ways and what they ultimately discover about themselves and each other during their quasi-sorta treasure hunt for both the remains of their fallen comrade to say nothing of the gold they squirreled away during a mission gone awry does seem like more than enough for one film to handle in terms of narrative material. Yet Lee, not content with that, ingeniously is able to use that narrative to also make barbed and pretty pointed statements about United States history, American cinema, the BLM movement, and (of course) the period of time where one Donald J. Trump served as U.S. President. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Lee’s take on all of this material isn’t dour and moody 100% of the time. Rather, it’s actually quite invigorating, thought-provoking, and often comedic at times as well much in the same manner as his equally as delightful 2018 cinematic endeavor BlacKkKlansman turned out to be and this film is all the better for it since it always keeps us as movie goers on our toes and never really sure on just what will happen at any given point in time. Yet even though this movie does go over material that countless others films have, Lee manages to merge his professional handling of the material with some unique experiments with this film’s tone yes it is not difficult to make the critique that Lee’s method is extremely hard to follow. At the same time however, I would like to argue that it may zip around constantly, but there is most definitely a brilliant method to the madness on display here. A claim I will back up with the fact that, much in the same vein as the best works in the man’s filmography, this film is not meant to be easily combed or sifted through. Instead this is a film that is meant more to inspire a stunned, angry, or even heartbroken emotional reaction and trust me when I say it certainly does that. Suffice it to say that the film might have its flaws, but there is no denying that at the end of the day Da 5 Bloods manages to insightfully showcase itself as the cinematic equal to a live wire. A wire incidentally that, with the aid of powerful work from all sides of the camera, proves to be lively and engaging, but also quite shocking as well. Not just in what it happens, but also in the message that it is trying to convey. Make of that what thou will. On a scale of 1-5 I give Da 5 Bloods “2020” a solid 4 out of 5.