Last year, Spike Lee won his first competitive Academy Award as co-writer of BlacKkKlansman, a stranger-than-fiction tale of an African-American cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the early 70s. That Lee should have achieved this victory in the same year that Do the Right Thing celebrated its 30th anniversary seemed significant, proving that this reliably provocative film-maker, now in his 60s, still had his finger on the pulse of modern America.
Having addressed the role of African American soldiers in the second world war in Miracle at St Anna, Lee turns to Vietnam for his latest, which opens on Netflix amid a period of enormous turmoil. Boasting an all-star cast including Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman, Da 5 Bloods follows a group of Vietnam vets who return to the country in which they fought “the American war”. Officially, they are there to locate and recover the remains of their fallen squad leader “Stormin’ Norman” (Boseman), a warrior, teacher and mentor (“our Malcolm and our Martin”). But they’re also on the trail of gold – a stash of bullion that they found and buried all those years ago.
Developed by Lee and his regular collaborator Kevin Willmott from an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Da 5 Bloods opens in typically forthright fashion with historical footage of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, the latter declaring that “when you take 20 million black people and make them fight all your wars and pick all your cotton… sooner or later their allegiance towards you is going to wear thin”.
This political thread is picked up in Ho Chi Minh City, where the reunited comrades (surreally framed against the backdrop of an Apocalypse Now disco bar) remember that “when we got back from ’Nam we didn’t get nothing but a hard time”. Yet Paul (Lindo) still voted for Trump, telling his friends that “I’m tired of not getting mine, man”, and insisting that it’s “time we got these freeloading immigrants off our backs and build that wall!” As Otis (Peters, brilliant as always) mockingly mimics fawning minstrelsy, Lee cuts to a Florida rally in 2016 where “Blacks for Trump” banners are held aloft, a moment of sublimely horrific comedy. Later we’ll hear recreations of Hanoi Hannah’s propaganda broadcasts targeting African American GIs (a silky smooth performance from Veronica Ngo) as Lee draws a line from slavery to soldiery and on to the current divide-and-rule unrest.
All this is vintage Lee. What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Flashbacks to the war are effectively invoked through 16mm footage in which cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel squeezes the widescreen frames of the present into the square newsreel format of the past. Yet these latterday scenes of chase and capture feel altogether less substantial, as if the reunited platoon have somehow strayed across genre lines into a different movie.
Such tonal shifts are nothing new to Lee, whose most provocative works have combined tragedy and comedy, history and fiction, alienation and immersion, to powerful effect. While Martin Scorsese’s Netflix picture The Irishman used state-of-the-art special effects to digitally de-age its cast, Da 5 Bloods wastes no time (or money) trying to smooth over the dramatic contrivance of placing its ageing stars alongside the more youthful Chadwick Boseman in the flashback scenes. It’s a reminder that Lee has always embraced the theatricality and artifice of movies, most notably in 2015’s Chi-Raq. But while the changing moods of BlacKkKlansman seemed bold and audacious, the warring elements of Da 5 Bloods appear bolted together rather than alchemically mixed.
Compare this to the Hughes brothers’ still underappreciated 1995 masterpiece Dead Presidents, which painted a more vivid picture of the toxic legacy of Vietnam, shifting effortlessly from coming-of-age story to war-is-hell drama to heist thriller, before climaxing in a cry of raw political outrage that seems even more relevant today.
On the plus side, the ensemble cast (which also features Jonathan Majors, Norm Lewis, Mélanie Thierry, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Jean Reno and Paul Walter Hauser) is excellent, and Lee’s ear for a finely chosen tune remains sharp. Terence Blanchard’s rich score is interspersed with bursts of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On, sometimes erupting as a group singalong, elsewhere surfacing as a plaintive solo voice. In many ways, Gaye’s musical masterpiece is the thread that links the disparate time-frames of Da 5 Bloods, bringing past and present together. If only the rest of the movie was equally harmonious.
Source: The Guardian