Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Spike Lee, Kevin Wilmot, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo
Starring: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Melanie Theirry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Paakkonen, Jean Reno, Veronica Ngo and Johnny Tri Nguyen
Spike Lee’s commercial resurgence in the world of film continues with his second feature in as many years. During the years Barack Obama occupied The White House (2009-2017), Lee made four features. Red Hook Summer (2012), about a young boy spending a Brooklyn summer with his estranged grandfather. Oldboy (2013), a frankly pointless remake of Can-Wook Park’s classic revenge tale from 2003. Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), a stylish vampire film with questions of heritage and mortality and Chi-Raq (2015) a fable on American gun violence, still underappreciated and underseen. These four features made an estimated worldwide gross of 8.2 million dollars. BlacKkKlansman (2018) took 10 million dollars in its opening weekend in the USA and went on to a worldwide gross of 93 million dollars.
What has made Lee’s voice relevant to the masses once more? Surely the change in leadership in America is a contributing factor. Lee used the figure of David Duke as an avatar for Trump in BlacKklansman, an overt racist looking to get into politics to do some real damage. In his latest film, Da 5 Bloods, he takes away the thin veil. There’s a klansman in the Oval Office the film claims. When Trump appears via stock footage, the title card reads Fake Bone Spurs, referencing the fact that Trump avoided the Vietnam draft. Bone spurs is a joint condition linked with osteoarthritis. The validity of this diagnosis is very much in question. The podiatrist Larry Braustein’s (now deceased) daughters claim that the diagnosis was a favour to Donald’s father Fred. Braustein was renting a ground floor office building owned by Fred Trump.
This is a good example of how politically biting and genuinely hilarious Da 5 Bloods can be. Lee begins this film the same way he finished the last, with shocking real life footage and photographs of senseless violence and hate. It is raw, sobering and shocking footage that Lee forces us to consume. Some of the footage and photographs are infamous, however Lee still manages to create an extra sense of levity to what we are seeing. Lee is constantly walking a tonal tightrope with this film. At the beginning he balances it very well. We seamlessly move from acts of cruelty and horror to friends reunited in a hotel lobby in Saigon. Perhaps, the sheer relief is enough for us to accept the acute contrast.
The four friends are Paul (Lindo), Otis (Peters), Eddie (Lewis) and Melvin (Whitlock Jr.). All Vietnam veterans, all back for a reason. They are on a mission to recover the body of their former squad leader Stormin’ Norman (Boseman). There is also a small matter of a gold fortune they left buried in the jungle all those years ago. It isn’t just business for these four ‘bloods’. They are also out for a good time before the real mission begins. This is where Lee’s film really pops. Glimpses of Vietnamese nightlife and it’s beautiful countryside give you a feeling of wanderlust. A feeling made even stronger given the current global pandemic.
It is when they reach the jungle that the film becomes a bit scatty, desperately trying to discover it’s focal point. Flashbacks to the war, shot in a grainy, box 4:3 ratio format to give the aesthetic of the time keeps the film fresh. Themes Lee dealt with in Miracle at St. Anna (2008) surrounding the morbid irony of black men fighting for a country that doesn’t respect them as equals are explored here once more. Lee also displays his talents for putting together an action sequence. A skill we only intermittently get to see considering his vastly diverse cinematic output.
The film falls down in it’s confusing characterisation and bloated third act. We never quite get a full grasp on who these characters are and their relationship with one another- their motivations and morals shifting almost constantly. The film devolves slowly into a cliched study on the effects of greed and the price of war. Ultimately, Lee’s overall message that love is the most powerful weapon against hate shines through.