Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Spike Lee
Stars: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock jr, Chadwick Boseman, Jean Reno, Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Johnny Nguyen, Jasper Paakkonen, Veronica Ngo.
The latest joint from provocative filmmaker Spike Lee is an ambitious and politically charged film that looks at the Vietnam War from the perspective of African American soldiers, and it contains plenty of his usual fiery rhetoric about the parlous state of race relations in the US.
Four former Vietnam veterans return to Vietnam forty years after the end of the war, ostensibly to search for the body of their fallen squad leader. But they are also looking for a fortune in gold bullion that they buried alongside him. The gold, which was intended as a covert CIA payment to Vietnamese soldiers fighting alongside US forces, was aboard a plane that crashed into the jungle.
Paul (Delroy Lindo) is still scarred and psychologically traumatised by his experiences in the war and is still wracked with guilt over the death of their comrade. His bitterness and anger have shaped his life and his relationships in the years since he returned home from the war. He has never really been able to move on from the war. Paul is accompanied by his former comrades Otis (Clarke Peters), whose return to Vietnam has a personal significance as he reconnects with a former love and the daughter he has not seen; Eddie (Norm Lewis); and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock jr, from The Wire, etc). Joining them unexpectedly is Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathon Majors, from The Last Black Man In San Francisco), who looks at this as a time to try and bond with his emotionally distant father.
These men learn that, even though the war is long over, Vietnam is still no country for old men. The four older men discover that Vietnam is a lot different from when they last saw it, although there is still some resentment towards the centuries of colonialism oppression and the American presence during the war. Older traditional buildings sit adjacent to modern architecture, and the streets of Saigon are littered with familiar fast-food franchises, a more contemporary form of American imperialism.
David meets up with Hedy (Melanie Thierry), an idealistic Frenchwoman working with a team to dispose of unexploded landmines and bombs that still litter the jungle and countryside. Paul also makes a deal with Desroche (Jean Reno), an untrustworthy French entrepreneur who will transform the gold bullion into cash for the men.
As the group head upriver into the jungles, led by their local guide (Johnny Nguyen) there are numerous references to the classic Apocalypse Now (arguably the film that best depicts the madness as chaos of the American war as it was known). The soundtrack heavily features the music of Marvin Gaye, including a stripped back version of his 1971 classic What’s Going On. But there are also hints of the Oscar winning Treasure Of The Sierra Madre as the treasure hunt is thwarted by greed, madness, betrayal and murder. There are also references to other post-Vietnam war set films such as Stallone’s Rambo II and Chuck Norris’ Missing In Action.
On the surface Da 5 Bloods seems like a fairly straightforward and conventional drama – part road journey, part treasure hunt, part war movie – and was originally intended for director Oliver Stone. However, the script from Danny Bilson, Kevin Willmott and Paul De Meo has been dramatically reshaped to suit Lee’s regular themes and concerns about race relations in contemporary America, and the narrative has a powerful and resonant subtext. There is a sly dig at the divisive policies of President Trump, while an opening montage juxtaposes the unpopular war in Vietnam with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement back home, with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King outspoken critics of US involvement in the conflict. We also learn that while African Americans made up roughly 11% of the population, they comprised over a third of combat troops in Vietnam and were often considered cannon fodder for dangerous missions in country. The irony of their involvement in an unpopular war half a world away is not lost on Lee. There is also some confronting footage of the many atrocities committed during the war, which are juxtaposed next to footage of riots back home.
Da 5 Bloods has been filmed on location in both Vietnam and Thailand, which lends an authenticity to the setting. Cinematographer Thomas Newton Siegel (Extraction, etc) has shot in widescreen for the most part and captures some striking imagery, but he also uses a washed-out palette and different aspect ratio for the flashback sequences. The action sequences are well handled.
Lindo has a strong presence and brings a wonderful overwrought intensity to his performance as man still scarred by his war experiences. In one of his final screen appearances before his untimely recent death Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, etc) appears briefly in a series of flashback sequences as the doomed squad leader “Stormin’ Norm”, although he is given little to do. Paul Walter Hauser (Richard Jewell, etc) is almost unrecognisable in a small role as a member of Hedy’s bomb disposal crew.
Lee has always been an interesting and passionate filmmaker, and Da 5 Bloods (originally titled The Last Tour), his first film for streaming giant Netflix, is one of the more conventional and accessible films of his recent output. While it explores familiar themes and features many of his signature stylistic touches, it is a little over long with an overly generous running time of 155 minutes, and there are a few scenes that hint of padding. Nonetheless it is still relevant and well worth a look.
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