Order Out of Chaos
Who else but filmmaker Spike Lee could successfully incorporate such assorted filmmaking techniques as wipes, title cards, 16mm, 2.40:1 widescreen, black & white, flashbacks, archival footage, and photo stills into a single film that takes on such varied themes as violence, regret, greed, male friendship, nostalgia, colonialism, the Vietnam War, racial exploitation, and the lasting legacy of land mines, yet not make a total mess of it all?
Thatís exactly what Lee does in his latest film, Da 5 Bloods now playing on Netflix. Itís a film that, in all its grab bag meandering, and on-the-nose cornball goofiness (look no further than the filmís poster as evidence), totally works and is as poignant and meaningful a film as anything he has made to date. And while exactly how he pulls it off is a riddle with no answer, nearly everything he has to say in the film feels as relevant today as it did some 50 years ago.
Representing a huge improvement over his WWII dud The Miracle at St. Anna, Da 5 Bloods is Leeís second war movie. This one is centered on the Vietnam War and opens with a brief history lesson of Americaís tensions during the years surrounding the warís pinnacle, as unsettling archival footage and powerful photos and quotes of dissenters fill the frames. Informative text at the bottom of the screen puts the imagery into soul-searing context.
A sudden cut takes us to bustling modern-day Ho Chi Minh City where the story focuses on the lives of the titular African-American Vietnam veterans who are on a trip back to the ĎNam. Thereís Otis (Clarke Peters, The Wire), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., BlacKkKlansman), Eddie (Norm Lewis, Sex and the City 2), and Paul (Delroy Lindo, Get Shorty), who are officially in the country to recover the body of their fifth compadre, Storminí Norman (Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther) who served with them but was killed when the Bloods were defending a downed plane in 1971. At least thatís the official state-sponsored reason for their visit.
We soon learn that thereís another force drawing the Bloods together. Having recently rediscovered the location of a chest of U.S. Government gold they buried back in the day, the guys hire a guide to take them to the last known location of the buried treasure. But with no way of getting the hundreds of pounds of gold out of the communist country legally, Otis reaches out to his former Vietnamese lover TiÍn (LÍ Y Lan, IP Man 3) who may be able to help. However, as the circle of those who know about the gold enlarges, so does the danger involved in getting it back home safely.
A big part of the joy of watching Da 5 Bloods comes from meeting this disparate group of characters who, despite their lives having taken them in different directions, are bonded for life by their shared experience in the war. Watching these silly old goats as they search for the buried treasure is a downright hoot. While each is flawed, it is the haunted and angry Paul for whom the war never ended. With his bitterness long since having turned into anger, he is a MAGA-hat-wearing ticking time bomb of a black man who becomes triggered at a momentís notice. His greed and racial prejudice are the driving force of the film and the springboard for Leeís signature brand of filmmaking. Lindo gives a stellar performance and is sure to be remembered come Oscar season. Heís that good here.
Another of Leeís major triumphs with Da 5 Bloods is his innovative use of flashbacks throughout the film. One aspect of flashback scenes that so many filmmakers struggle with is the timing. Too often and they become annoying. Not often enough feels tacked on after the fact. At appropriate intervals throughout Da 5 Bloods, we are taken back to Vietnam as the war is raging and the Bloods are fighting for their lives. Rather than using younger talent stand-ins, our aged actors play the war scenes alongside much younger soldiers including Bosemanís Norman. Certainly a big risk, but one that pays off handsomely.
Of course Da 5 Bloods wouldnít be a Spike Lee film if it didnít have anything to say. And boy, does it have a message. With no fewer than a half dozen things to get across about the state of our country and how the past brought us to where we are today, Lee is all over the place. Yet he is always able to get the tone just perfect. The film seamlessly switches genres from action to buddy flick, to road trip film, and back again, while never feeling busy or over-worked.
In what would drive any lesser filmmaker totally batty, Lee mixes tons of archival footage and quotes from historical black figures and a handful of humorous references to classic films and hidden easter eggs throughout. I donít know how the guys does it, but Spike Lee has an amazing talent for creating order out of chaos and putting it on film in a way that becomes instant must-watch material. And Da 5 Bloods is a must watch.
(Released by Netflix and rated ďRĒ for strong violence, images and pervasive language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.