As a brief respite from extolling the treasures to be found in streaming services, this intrepid reviewer will now take the time to praise new films.
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is the best 2020 release I’ve seen so far, and I’m reasonably confident it will remain “up there” as the year continues. It is a compelling, powerful exploration of friendship, race relations, war, greed, and mortality, with the Vietnam War and civil rights a huge part of the narrative—in both the past and the present. Many years after the Vietnam War, four surviving black Vietnam vets – Clarke Peters as Otis), Delroy Lindo (Paul), Norm Lewis (Eddie) and Isaiah Whitlock Jr.(Melvin) have returned to Vietnam to recover the remains of a fifth (Chadwick Bozeman’s Norman, seen in flashbacks). Norman, has inspired almost divine reverence from the others, especially in his commitment to righting the wrongs his race has suffered at the hands of white oppressors. So when (in the flashbacks) they intercept a gold shipment, it is Norman who convinces the others they should claim it for their own, with the intention of using the gold as reparations. The four “bloods,” much older now and with different mindsets (Lindo’s Paul is a devout Trump-ian who wears his MAGA hat with pride, Lewis’ Eddie puts up a prosperous front that shields desperation at the core) and different ideas of what to do with the gold if they find it—and are able to get it out. Otis’ Vietnamese ex-lover connects them with a Frenchman (Jean Reno) who offers to assist in this regard (for a substantial price).
All that remains is the journey itself, one that is infused with homages to classic films (Apocalypse Now, Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and fraught with complications stemming from the participants’ age, prejudices both latent and exposed, questionable loyalties, and an encroaching sense of guilt. And then there are the more palpable obstacles, such as possible interlopers and an explosive terrain with its own way of clinging to the past, in the form of undetected landmines. Lee juxtaposes the events of the present with documentary footage and interviews which serve to reinforce the sense of our nation’s minefields of social and racial unrest (of course at this point in time, the film is sadly timelier than ever). There are also the Vietnam War flashbacks, in which the four older actors are seen as they are (no de-aging as in The Irishman) opposite Bozeman’s heroic Norman. While some might criticize this, it works since we’re seeing these events in a subjective manner, through the heroes’ memories of these fateful moments. These scenes establish the lasting bond formed by the heroes, as well as the savagery of war—and the irony—not lost on the soldiers or the audience—that these men are fighting for a country that has, in their minds, long since abandoned them. No de-aging necessary here– the emotions and the anguish are loud and clear.
Da 5 Bloods isn’t a perfect film – it meanders in spots, and it can be a tad repetitive – but it is an exciting, suspenseful, relevant, and potent drama nonetheless. It is filled with haunting vignettes: Peters’ Otis visiting his ex-lover and a certain awareness that sets in; a history lesson amid the vitriol between Jean Reno and Lindo’s Paul; the journey along the river, where a seemingly innocuous exchange threatens to ignite into a violent encounter; an intense scene between Lindo’s Paul and his son David (Jonathan Majors) which almost embodies the idea that people do “contain multitudes” (I don’t want to spoil anything); a blistering monologue by Lindo’s Paul that takes no prisoners. Lee gets exceptional work from all his actors, with Lindo, Bozeman, Peters, Whitlock and Lewis (his largest film role to date) serving as a peerless ensemble. Da 5 Bloods can be seen on Netflix (there I go, praising Netflix again), and it’s another rewarding Spike Lee “joint” and well worth seeing.