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USA 2020
Directed by
Spike Lee
154 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Da 5 Bloods

From his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Spike Lee has committed himself to articulating the Black American experience. His most effective effort in this respect was Do The Right Thing in 1989. Since then he has returned to his mission with more or less success. In the case of his latest film it is with a lot less. Lee has been never afraid to repeat himself loudly so and at length, but with Da 5 Bloods he pushes his agenda into the self-caricatural.

With a certain indebtedness to John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) Da 5 Bloods tells the story of four black Vietnam veterans (Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis) who return to the former war zone ostensibly to repatriate the remains of their fellow grunt, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but mainly to retrieve a substantial cache of gold.

The plot is reminiscent of the drawing game played with a single piece of paper folded so that each player can only see their own panel. Once everyone has had a turn the paper is unfolded to reveal the random (and hopefully pleasing) results. Credited to Lee and three other writers including Kevin Wilmott a co-writer on Lee's BlacKkKlansman (2018), along with Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo the film is the equivalent of the unfolded sheet.

After the initial "sketch" relating how the men originally came to be in possession of the gold (Lee doesn’t bother to use younger actors or CGI for the flashbacks which feels a bit odd albeit not a major issue),  On the next “sheet”, which ridiculously improbably takes place about ten minutes after they start looking, they find the gold and the remains of Norman. Next they load up the gold (which looks way heavier than they could possibly carry), apparently leaving Norman’s bones behind and walk straight into an ambush by former Vietcong under the instructions of a shady French businessman (Jean Reno).  Wedged in there is a sub-plot involving Lindo's screen son (Jonathan Majors) and an attractive blonde heiress (Mélanie Thierry) who is guilt-stricken by the fact that her family’s wealth came from the exploitation of the Vietnamese peasantry, and who treks around the jungle (which doesn’t look like a jungle) defusing landmines and assorted ordnance.

This cock-a-mamie plot not only stretches credulity beyond breaking point but inflicts on us the brothers’ from-the-'hood patois (which largely comes down to calling everyone “mo'fucker” and variously roasting each other’s black asses with a righteous spray of apostrophes).

Had Lee stuck to the key idea of the film which is, broadly speaking, to draw attention to the irony of the fact that a large number of poor, young black soldiers fought and died in Vietnam for freedoms Black America Da 5 Bloods could have been interesting even powerful. Instead he (once again characteristically) keeps jamming in archival news material from the time, all of which we have seen many times before (probably quite a few times in Lee’s films). Lee throws in everything from My Lai to Kent State, Angela Davis to Richard Nixon and soaks it all in his regular composer Terence Blanchard's score and  the soulful sounds of Marvin Gaye. Sometimes this works as in the case of the famous footage of Muhammad Ali explaining to a news conference why he refuses to fight in Vietnam and the case of unsung black hero Milton Olive III who was the first African-American awarded the Medal of Honor in Vietnam after falling on a grenade to save his buddies (and which Lee has felt justified in reiterating for his own story)  but more often than not it feels like a lazy cut and paste job.

The cast are adequate to their roles with Delroy Lindo getting the best showing as a loose cannon and whose rants invigorates a film which otherwise could have been one of those ensemble “old guys” films that Christopher Walken so often appears in.

We understand that the fight for equality in America is far from over but Lee incessantly banging his drum is probably not going to contribute much to achieving that. Although he does manages to get in a few droll pot-shots at Trump and blacks who endorse him, he really needs to get back to making good films and laying off the sermonising.




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