Da 5 Bloods (United States, 2020)

June 15, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Da 5 Bloods Poster

When it comes to a Spike Lee movie, it would be foolish to expect a politics-free zone. Lee is an activist filmmaker and has never pretended otherwise. He makes movies that entertain and educate but, most importantly, he seeks to challenge. Some have argued that he speaks only to a black audience but I would argue that he’s equally interested in being heard by white viewers. The problem is, some have preconceived notions about Lee and his message and are unwilling to listen or, if they do, they don’t want to hear. Is it possible to “get past the politics” and enjoy the movie? Possibly not, because the two are inextricably entwined. But it is possible to watch the movie from an opposing perspective and be engaged.

Kismet has made Da 5 Bloods timely in that it arrives as if by fate at a cultural inflection point when people of all races are engaging in (hopefully) meaningful dialogue about the very themes the movie addresses. Such a reading of Da 5 Bloods ignores, however, that this isn’t new territory for Lee. He has been beating this drum for decades. It’s rare that one of his films doesn’t delve deeply into issues of race relations. Lee was on board with the Black Lives Matter movement long before Colin Kaepernick used sports to bring it into many white people’s living rooms.

Da 5 Bloods starts out as a thoughtful (although not necessarily introspective) look at how black servicemen perceive the Vietnam War through the lens of the half-century that has passed since its peak. In the eye of the storm, it was all about surviving and protecting one’s brothers. As it faded into the rearview mirror, however, the bitter irony of the experience has become clear: black soldiers were fighting and dying in a foreign country for a homeland that devalued them as people and citizens. The movie offers a telling statistic: 11% of the United States’ population circa 1970 was black, but about 35% of the men fighting in Vietnam were of that race.

Lee plants one foot firmly in the early 1970s with a series of flashback sequences that recall the war and the other in the era of Trump (called both “President Fake Bone Spurs” and “The Klansman President” in case anyone is uncertain where the director stands regarding the current administration). The modern-day portion of the narrative has four Vietnam survivors – jovial Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), serious-minded Otis (Clarke Peters), low-key Eddie (Norm Lewis), and angry, aggressive Paul (Delroy Lindo) – head back to the thoroughly modernized Suck to make their peace with their experiences there. This includes locating the remains of their leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and retrieving a trunk of CIA gold bars that they discovered and hid during their tour. Accompanying the four returning soldiers is Paul’s estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors). They are aided (or imperiled) at various points by several inhabitants of Ho Chi Minh City – Tien (Le Y Lan), a wartime prostitute who dallied with Otis; the helpful tour guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), who refers to the past conflict as “The American War;” a foreign “entrepreneur” (Jean Reno); and an idealistic French woman, Hedy (Melanie Thierry), who is involved in land-mine removal.

The deeper we get into the movie, however, the clearer it becomes that this is less an homage to films like Apocalypse Now (which is explicitly referenced) and a criticism of things like First Blood, than a reworking of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Although Lee and his co-screenwriters (Danny Bilson, Paul Demeo, Kevin Willmott) deviate significantly from John Huston’s 1948 script (based on the novel by B. Traven), the second half of Da 5 Bloods tracks The Treasure of the Sierra Madre surprisingly closely. There’s a tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of the “stinkin’ badges” line and the madness of one character echoes that of Humphrey Bogart’s Dobbs. The theme, about the love of money being the root of all evil, is intact. It also gives Lee an opportunity to add a few action scenes to the menu.

There’s a lot of fat here – too much, in fact. It gets in the way of Lee’s themes without adding much in the way of depth or breadth. The quasi-romance between David and Hedy is an example. It’s not sufficiently developed to be interesting and, as a result, it’s mostly a distraction and a time-waster. This is a common failing with prestige Netflix films. The distributor attracts directors by offering them a generous budget and carte blanche control. The latter quality is a double-edged sword, however, because it enables directors to be less critical when determining which cuts need to be made. It’s not as big an issue here as it was in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, but the 2 ½-hour running time is at least 15 minutes (and perhaps more) beyond what the narrative requires.

Lee uses archived clips to establish context and amplify thematic content. Da 5 Bloods opens with a montage that recalls the Civil Rights struggles of the 1970s. We hear from Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X (among others) as Lee italicizes the hypocrisy of black men fighting America’s war in Vietnam while their U.S. brethren battled on the home soil for equality. Regardless of how deeply into Treasure of Sierra Madre territory the narrative ventures, it never loses its connection to the ‘70s.

For the flashbacks, Lee opts not to de-age the actors (with one exception: a still photograph shown late in the proceedings). One can argue whether his choice – to have a group of actors in their late-60s playing 20-somethings – is more or less distracting than using technology to peel back the years. To help differentiate between the war-era scenes and those that transpire in modern times, Lee switches aspect ratios. The 1970s material is presented in 1.33:1 while the 2010s stuff is 2.35:1.

While Da 5 Blood’s themes and messages are delivered with the power of a sledgehammer, the overall narrative is a times messy, littered with contrivances and hampered by shifts in tone that don’t always work. Nevertheless, this is a work of passion and anger and it conveys points in the subtext that provoke an emotional and intellectual response. Is Lee preaching to the choir? Perhaps but those not already in the fold who give the film a chance may discover that the things Lee is saying are hard to disagree with regardless of your race, creed, or color.


Da 5 Bloods (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2020-06-12
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, )
Genre: War/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1