Da 5 Bloods

 

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Five blood brothers meet up for a reunion in Vietnam in Spike Lee’s heavy-handed satire on greed, war and race.

   

Da 5 Bloods

Best laid plans: Isiah Whitlock Jr, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors, and, kneeling, Delroy Lindo 

  

Spike Lee has been angry for so long that, inevitably, many of his films have opened at politically serendipitous moments. His last feature, BlacKkKlansman, ended with footage of the 2017 Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally, which unfolded when he was editing his film. At the close of Da 5 Bloods, he includes a scene packed with people chanting ‘Black Lives Matter!’ Each of the director’s ‘Joints’ is spiked with some form of righteous indignation, and Da 5 Bloods is no exception, although it’s actually more of a modern-day riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Yet, as much as it is an indictment of greed, it is also an anti-war tract burrowing into the rotten soul of Vietnam. Expect clips of Richard Nixon, Nguyen Van Lém and Phan thi Kim Phuc.

 

Not untypically, the movie opens with newsreel footage, of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Angela Davis, as well as various well-documented atrocities. Already we can smell Spike Lee’s blood on the boil. We then cut to modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, where four Vietnam vets (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis and Isiah Whitlock Jr) meet for a colourful reunion choked with warm nostalgia and playful banter. Only Lindo’s Paul sets a sour note, as he confesses to having voted for Trump and admits to an admiration for the Rambo films. Later, the four old men are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who has yet to settle a score with his father. The quartet, it transpires, are as much in search of reparation as they are for a stash of gold bullion which they had stumbled across in the 1960s during a firefight in South Vietnam and then hidden. They are also bent on retrieving the remains of their comrade-in-arms, 'Stormin' Norm', played in flashback by Chadwick Boseman. Of course, their hopes do not exactly go to plan…

 

As Steve McQueen is an artist of the cinematic form, Barry Jenkins is a poet – and Spike Lee a cartoonist. And Spike is nothing if not self-indulgent. He is also supremely talented and Da 5 Bloods is pitted with brilliance, a handful of memorable moments and some terrific acting, particularly from Delroy Lindo and Clarke Peters. But at 154 minutes it more than outstays its welcome. That’s the problem with Netflix – the streaming giant is perfectly happy to give its star pupils enough rope to hang themselves (cf. Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman). Thus, many of Spike Lee’s aesthetic choices here are lamentable, with a bombastic military score that crowds out any sense of normality and a corporeal sadism that is entirely unnecessary. And as he endlessly punches home his point with jolting clips and historical asides, he keeps reminding the viewer that this is just a movie. When the men travel down river in a boat, their journey is accompanied by a blast of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a gag that may have been more appropriate in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder. And as Clarke Peters’ Otis recycles James Donald’s declamation at the end of The Bridge on the River Kwai – “Madness! Madness!” – caricature undermines the horror… the horror. The tone, sometimes hallucinogenic, sometimes parodic, really wants to have its cake and eat it. And the jokiness is reinforced by Jean Reno’s unscrupulous French businessman who chirps “Vive La France!” and wears a baseball cap with the legend ‘Make America Great Again.’ Is Spike Lee doling out broad satire or is he making a political point? Obviously, he’s trying to do both, at the expense of his audience.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Lê Y Lan, Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm, Sandy Hương Phạm, Van Veronica Ngo.

 

Dir Spike Lee, Pro Jon Kilik, Spike Lee, Beatriz Levin and Lloyd Levin, Screenplay Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee and Kevin Willmott, Ph Newton Thomas Sigel, Pro Des Wynn Thomas, Ed Adam Gough, Music Terence Blanchard, Costumes Donna Berwick.

 

40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/Rahway Road/Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Productions-Netflix.

154 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 12 June 2020. Cert. 15.