Da 5 Bloods
I loved Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman for its use of comedy to portray a serious message about racism in America. Here he similarly mixes his genres to tell a story that has a deadly serious context but manages to make us laugh out loud some – but not all – of the time.
We kick off in Ho Chi Minh city where four Vietnam vets are gathered ostensibly to try and find the remains of their fallen leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and bring his bones back home. They marvel at the changes that have taken place since they were last here, and celebrate their reunion with an outrageous evening, strutting their stuff and getting drunk in a surreal Apocalypse Now disco bar.
But our four bloods Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) are not as comradely now as they were – the years have changed them. Most surprising is Paul, an avid Trump supporter, who sports a Make America Great Again cap. He is emphatic, ‘I’m tired of not getting mine, man, it’s time we got these freeloading immigrants off our backs and build that wall!’ Despite their political differences, they all idolise the memory of their former commander who was a strong believer in the teachings of Martin Luther King. They learn of his assassination in one of the more moving sequences in the film.
We soon discover that their trip camouflages a deeper quest – to find the gold bullion they salvaged from a plane that went down and they buried for just such a day. As the saying goes, money is the root of all evil, and the tensions soon begin to rise as they go deeper into the Mekong Delta having abandoned their guide to complete their secret mission. The superficial boy-scout outing atmosphere soon evaporates as Paul, now joined by his troubled son, begins to lose his mind. The jungle becomes increasingly threatening as they realise they are being followed and are surrounded by minefields – both emotional and physical.
From being a rather tame western à la The Treasure of the Sierra Madre we are plunged into a synthesis of all the violent Vietnam movies ever made, as our antiheroes are ambushed, shot at and blown up as they stagger on towards their goal. Jean Reno makes a rather marvellous French colonial baddie, although it begs the question of whether his Vietnamese henchmen are justified in wanting their share of the bullion. After all, why should the vanquished Yankees get the spoils of war, in a foreign country? There are plenty of visual reminders about the morals of war – not least exemplified by footage of napalm bombings and the Mai Lai massacre.
Lee intersperses the present-day action with video clips of the war itself and flashbacks of our vets, building to the catastrophic gunfight which has led to this trip. He makes effective use of soundtrack with tracks from Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on? serving as a linking anthem throughout; there is the inevitable Wagner moment too – Lee loves to allude and pay homage to other masters of the cinema. With great effect he reverses the CGI device used by Scorsese in The Irishman, where the actors are rejuvenated in flashback – here we have our soldiers as they are now while their boss is forever captured at his moment of death, looking more like a son than the father-figure they revered.
There is always a serious message with Spike Lee, and Da 5 Bloods is no exception. Extraordinary that its release coincided with the Black Lives Matter protests. He references the pain of black Americans today by charting the grievance they felt at the draft, where they were recruited in far greater numbers than their white counterparts, through being underprivileged, poor and unable to work out how to dodge their call of duty and, in the field, more exposed to the front line which led to a much higher proportion of fatalities.
That’s why the Viet Cong propaganda machine worked hard via alluring announcements (here made by a softly-spoken and sexy Van Veronica Ngo) to try and seduce black servicemen to abandon their support for the oppressor and identify with their supposed enemy. Their lack of success was not due to any great love of the black GIs for their white leaders, but a confused sense of patriotism and pride, clearly expressed in the joyful reunion of our comrades at the beginning of the film. But by the end of it I was gasping for breath and wished it had been a little less gung-ho and Rambo-like; while intended to be a parody I felt some of the exaggerations of style and content detracted from the desired dramatic effect.