Leave it to Spike Lee to deliver a timely, deeply resonant - and dare I say -"masterpiece," at this precise time in American history. His latest joint, "Da Five Bloods" is also his best film in decades, and should be essential viewing once it hits Netflix this Friday.
All that we've come to expect from a Spike Lee "joint" is present in "Da Five Bloods," but what coalesces amidst this whirlwind journey of four friends is really quite the achievement. Spike can't help himself from including sharp, political contemporary commentary in his films, but this time around - even more so than in previous films - he emits a supreme confidence not only in his message, but in his abilities as a filmmaker.
"Da Five Bloods" feels electric and alive from the jump. Four Black Vietnam vets reunite and travel back to the Vietnamese jungles when they learn a new tip as to where the remains of their fallen captain might be located. Oh, there's extra incentive, in that the plane that had brought down their beloved leader, "Stormin" Norman (Chadwick Boseman) was also carrying a chest of gold bars, originally sent from the US government as payment to some Vietnamese troops.
Their journey - and the movie - is not just a search for buried treasure. In fact, much of the exploration in the film happens internally, as these broken men try to come to terms with their pasts and this brutal, unnecessary war that forever re-shaped their lives.
Leading the charge is a reliable staple in many Spike Lee films, Delroy Lindo, who plays Paul, a severely shattered Vet who is riddled with guilt over losing Stormin' Norman all those years back. Underrated and perhaps underappreciated throughout his acting career, Delroy Lindo is simply brilliant in the role, and even in a year that would have the normal amount of movie releases, he'd be considered a front-runner for any award consideration. Full of anger and rage, Paul has become a staunch Republican (even sporting a red MAGA hat in the film) and still has conversations with Stormin' Norman every night. His mental health is such an issue, that his estranged son (the up-and-coming eventual A-lister, Jonathan Majors) tags along on the trip to Nam to look after his dad.
Rounding out the five "bloods" are level-headed Otis (Clarke Peters), pigeon-toed Eddie (Norm Lewis) and comic relief Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., whose catchphrase - Shhhhiiiiiiiiiitttttt - must somehow be included in his contract). The chemistry between the men draws you in, and as good as Lindo is, these actors are on par, as are the other supporting ensemble (Mélanie Thierry, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Jean Reno and Paul Walter Hauser among them).
Bringing Vietnam Veterans back to Vietnam in the flesh is something that we rarely see in film. Most of the time, Vets are shown not wanting to confront their past, let alone relive it in person. Not that these Bloods want to confront their past, but this journey forces them to. In this setting, Spike uses flashback sequences more effectively than in most films...unlike, say, what "The Irishman"
did in using "de-aging" CG-effects, or casting younger actors in the roles, Lee makes the bold decision to put these senior, aging actors in the flashback scenes themselves, opposite the younger Chadwick Boseman. At first it's a bit jarring, but the impressionistic affect works perfectly for a story about Vietnam Veterans...surely, these men really never left Nam, and they're still fighting these very battles to this day. It's a masterful choice that a lesser filmmaker would never have had the balls to make.
Also, in putting these modern characters in what movie-goers are used to only seeing in period films (again, how many movies depict a modern-day Vietnam?), Spike is able to weave in several statements about war, the United States, the treatment of veterans - especially those of color - and how money is at the root of it all. More than money, we're all chasing the dream of being well-off, but greed ultimately corrupts. Spike puts these men not in a story, but in a time and place. He places in context the Black experience. Take for example, how Vietnamese radio announcer Hanoi Hannah (Ngo Thanh Van) broadcasts a message directly to front-line Black American soldiers, announcing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We've all been shown countless times the soul-crushing hopelessness of what soldiers went through in Vietnam, but imagine already being sent to the front-lines in a disproportionate amount (as Blacks were) and then hearing that the figure-head of the Civil Rights movement was eliminated, on American soil no less.
In addition to the power of these moments, there are several nuances that Spike includes in the film that also divert audience expectations. Before a Vietnamese group of soldiers are wiped out in one flashback, we overhear them - with subtitles - talking about their wives and families back home before they are abruptly murdered. When a pair of lowly white dudes show up and appear to be tracking the Bloods through the jungle, we expect them to be the villains...whites are the villains in a black story, right?
But Spike Lee pulls the rug out from underneath us. A shocking - and I do mean shocking - twist literally explodes our expectations for where this movie was heading prior. All of these threads put you on edge, as if watching the movie itself is like navigating a mine-field.
"Da Five Bloods" is one of the best films of the year, with a fantastic ensemble, award-worthy performances (Delroy Lindo especially), and a filmmaker firing on all cylinders. There are imperfections across this two-and-a-half-hour joint, but never a dull moment. It's also a film that isn't just entertaining, it's essential.
Genre: Drama, War.
Run Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Chadwick Boseman, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Jean Reno, Paul Walter Hauser.
Directed by Spike Lee ("BlacKkKlansman," "Inside Man," "Clockers," "Crooklyn," "Malcolm X," "Jungle Fever," "Do the Right Thing," "She's Gotta Have It").
"Da Five Bloods" is available on Netflix on Friday, June 12th, 2020.
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