Four African-American vets reunite after years apart on a trip to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squadron leader and a stash of gold he helped them hide. But the Bloods will have to face the challenges of the Vietnamese jungle, bandits, and the unresolved trauma of their years spent at war before they can return home safely.
Spike Lee is not afraid of political statements. In his last film, BlackKlansman, the director tied the story of an African-American police officer taking down the Ku Klux Klan to his own despair at the US’ hatred culture post-Trump’s presidential election. What could have been a morally uplifting story in another director’s hands was underpinned by Lee’s own anger at African-Americans’ historic mistreatment. This was reinforced by directing that blended documentary-making, pastiching other film genres, and video-diary-esque revelations of characters’ political motivations. It’s a style that’s uniquely Lee’s – and is back in force with Da 5 Bloods.
The film opens with an interview of Muhammad Ali. An outspoken African-American rights activist, Ali’s Vietnam War commentary stays in our mind as Lee runs a montage of news stories, documentary footage, and horrific images of the conflict. By framing the narrative of African-American soldiers and US civilians front and centre, we see a new side of the War. This alternative perspective continues throughout the film. Lee switches aspect ratios between modern day and flashback; he transplants characters’ older selves into their recollections; he uses documentary-style close ups to make the narrative seem more real. He continues to drop in images and clips of pop culture to break up the story. It’s a unique directing style that reminds us not to get too close to the narrative, that there is a political purpose here. Lee uses another interview clip to end Da 5 Bloods, this time of Dr. Martin Luther King. From the outspoken Ali to the peaceful King, both are important figures in African-American history and both had very different experiences of fitting into US society. With this, Lee shows us the answer to a more equitable society may be somewhere between these two leaders.
Where Da 5 Bloods falls down is in its rambling, overlong story. From the outset we seem to barely learn anything about the four Vietnam vets or their fallen leader they are travelling to exhume. Their characters are stock; the funny one, the serious one, the unhinged one. This may have been Lee’s conscious choice, to lampoon what Vietnam War films do with White characters. But it seems wrong to tell a story about an under-represented element of US military history without taking his main characters seriously. The narrative too seems to ramble, bouncing from one scene to the next with not enough consideration of what went before. It’s as if Lee was trying to do so much that he just became overwhelmed. With judicious editing, the film could have been more succinct.
Delroy Lindo, as the emotionally unstable Paul, is by far and away the powerhouse performer of Da 5 Bloods. From the outset Lindo has an unhinged energy that adds tension to every scene and undermines the returning vets’ dynamic. As Paul descends into madness, we become more connected to him than his rounded comrades. Lindo flits so easily between flinty coldness and shaking vulnerability that we are entranced, no matter how unhinged his character becomes. There aren’t many other notables acting turns to speak of however, as many characters are thin and uninspiring despite the film’s ample screen time.
Da 5 Bloods is a lot: a war-film pastiche, a compelling heist, an emotional drama, a political statement. In juggling it all, Lee does the best job expected. But the film could have been improved by more character building and a shorter run time.
Spike Lee’s politics-laced historical film is an unexpectedly powerful statement in extraordinary times – but doesn’t measure up to Lee’s best work. 7/10.
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