“After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.”
Spike Lee showcases a quintet of African American soldiers who served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. Lee’s handled war before with World War II drama Miracle at St. Anna, which had one of the best codas in film.
In Da 5 Bloods, Lee tackles the wars in Vietnam War and of racial injustice. Hate, death, attacks, heartache, and anguish. No one enjoys these emotions. They hurt everyone. Lee and his filmmaking crew attack them head-on with realism, heart, sacrifice, and genuine spirit.
Lee’s career has now spanned four decades and I really enjoyed this latest film available on Netflix. Timing is everything here and Lee will finally get more viewers than ever before with a perfect platform choice.
Usually, films in this genre would be labeled a “downer” or be brushed aside because it’s “too political.” Not now. Understanding is the driving force for viewers and Lee succeeds by bridging endless conflicts and, most importantly, showing audiences how people attempt to overcome adversity and how deeply this adversity affects them.
His films showcase endless cultural elements, mostly African American, in our unique nation … not just racial either. The culture of society, work, law enforcement, music, history, crime, urban living, and family.
Set in 1968, Vietnam War veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) are the four surviving Bloods with “Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) as the group’s former leader. The four describe him as the “best soldier who ever lived … he made us believe we’d get home alive.”
Johnny Nguyen as guide Vinh Tran who wants this group to now “see the country in a different light,” but they have other plans.
“We fought in an immoral war that wasn’t ours for rights we didn’t have,” says Paul as Lindo aces his pivotable role with amazing focus and stamina. David (Jonathan Majors), a teacher, makes this experience even more personal as he seeks a resolution that saves his father, Paul.
David holds his own as Lee features the “at-odds” relationship with the four elder members of the group in a great, contrasting angle shot during brunch. “Overstood,” David quips after the four, especially Paul, finish their demands on him. The adventurous, tense journey includes some relatable, even funny moments (like David trying to get a pair of shoes hung up on a line) not designed to be potential stress relievers; they’re just different and deepen each character’s development.
Whitlock Jr. (BlacKkKlansman) as Melvin seems relatively happy and his medical talents come in useful. Peters (The Wire) has some family issues to resolve as Otis who also has an important local contact named Tien (Lê Y Lan) who has a bad premonition. Lewis (Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera) plays Eddie with a seemingly confidant aura.
Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm portrays the leader of a group of Vietnamese soldiers while Van Veronica Ngo plays Hanoi Hannah, a radio host during the Vietnam War who seeks to neutralize U.S. soldier morale, but also provided important news from “back home.” Familiar French actors Jean Reno portrays Desroche. Members of a group called LAMB are portrayed by Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jaspen Pääkkönen.
The plot was originally written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo then was re-worked by Lee and Kevin Willmott. Lee and editor Adam Gough use quick cuts to transition to the inevitable and predictable plot points.
The locations (Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City) are incredible and add some counterbalancing appeal couple with the incredible cinematography from the director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel (Bohemian Rhapsody).
Lee cues the audience to the change in the timeline by cropping the screen for flashbacks, shot in 16 mm, then reverting back to widescreen for the present-day happenings. Lee impresses with another screen altering shot that uses a line in the middle of the screen that opens up to a full shot of the sun.
The key flashback sequence represents strong filmmaking as audiences witness an incredible helicopter and firefight sequence. Lee also uses a curved lens shot for an important group shot at a critical point in the plot.
Lee uses his own, now familiar version of the “floating” double dolly shot in the film near the end. Lee also used this stylized shot in Do The Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Crooklyn, He Got Game, Summer of Sam, Bamboozled, 25th Hour, and BlacKkKlansman.
Some logistical issues like the unrealistic portrayal of seemingly endless M16 fire, the inconsistent aging of the main group among timelines (until near the end), shooting off guns that would give away position to the enemy, and not getting a mine map from a group you just met at a bar that would have been essential in a dangerous trip into the jungle.
The music features Terence Blanchard’s incredible score (most notably at a dinner sequence near the beginning) and songs performed by Marvin Gaye, including one acapella version near the film’s crucial climax. Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” symphonic masterpiece also factors in as the main group beginning their journey.
Many of the constant references in the film are not only heard, but also seen including real life heroes like Milton Olive and Crispus Attucks. Characters comment on how Hollywood tried to go back and win Vietnam through the Rambo movies and others. Characters actually visit the Apocalypse Now bar in Vietnam. Other important and sometimes violent moments are also replayed including Muhammad Ali’s take on the Vietnam War and the on-camera execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém.
Da 5 Bloods is an incredible work that comes highly recommended (***1/2) and rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and pervasive language.