How can America be great again, if it was never great to begin with? If slavery isn’t proof enough, then what about the country’s involvement in Vietnam? Forget the fact that we invaded, dismantled, and destroyed innocent cities and lives. Instead, remember the sacrifice that a whole generation of young men and women made. Time is supposed to heal old wounds, but sometimes it just keeps tightening the gauze. “The Unwinnable War,” is the focus of legendary Academy Award winning director Spike Lee’s latest film Da 5 Bloods, and as you might expect, it shows just how much of the stain has actually washed off the flag.
*Apologies in advance for the politics, but just like the presence of landmines in this film, it’s unavoidable.
This epic war film is one part Raiders of the Lost Ark, one part The Goonies, and three parts Full Metal Jacket, with a special emphasis on black history that only Spike Lee could execute.
From the opening montage to its solemn closing title sequence, this is a 155 minute mission that simultaneously (and stylishly) educates and entertains.
Through flashbacks of both real life events and the events that our characters had to endure as young men in the war, Lee draws a line through history to prove that not much has changed. The moral of the story is that black men and women remain bastardized in a society that they pretty much built with their own two hands. That’s what makes the hunt for the film’s MacGuffin - a case of gold bars the main characters found while fighting - all the more enticing. It’s the long overdue piece of pie for the people who were never even offered a seat at the table.
Between the metaphorical motivation and blatant imagery, Lee also exercises his mastery of suspense. There are two sequences in particular that not only did I feel my heart beating out my chest for, but that I also nearly chewed my hands off. The first involves a landmine, and that’s all I’ll say because it’s a scene that no one deserves spoiled. The second is a monologue delivered by Delroy Lindo’s character. During it, he edges closer and closer to the camera, eventually eclipsing everything behind him, and it’s that lack of additional visual information that creates the suspense. Not knowing who or what surrounds him in a jungle that proves itself to be just as lethal as it was during the war made me uneasy. Lindo’s intensity as he stares right into the camera makes it all the more uncomfortable. That’s what I think I loved most about this film - it challenges you to be comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s what it’s like being a person of color in America.
In the span of his nearly 40 year long career, this is easily Lee’s most ambitious work, and it succeeds because Lee still isn’t afraid to push boundaries or take risks. That willingness has almost become his calling card by now. His most noticeable risk here is having a cast lead by four (arguably unknown) older black actors. With ties to distinguished actors like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and even Laurence Fishburne, it’s a bold choice that doesn’t go unnoticed. These unfamiliar faces add a degree of authenticity to the film though, as it feels like we’re following real people.
The film follows the four aforementioned men as they return to the jungle where their squad leader was killed during the Vietnam War. They want to bring his remains home. Buried in an unmarked grave, lost in time, is a case containing gold bars that they also stumbled upon years ago and they want to bring that home too.
At its core, Da 5 Bloods is a film about treasure hunting, but as much as the treasure means to them, the courage to fight their inner demons turns out to be their greatest discovery.
To be honest one of the only issues that I had with the film was the fact that there are a handful of predictable moments. There are also a little too many coincidences, but none of those things take away from the overall quality of the film or its message.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
The cast is excellent.
I’m going to jump on the bandwagon now, and say that Delroy Lindo at least deserves an Oscar nomination for his performance as Paul. His delivery of the aforementioned monologue comes off like an original Shakespearean soliloquy. As a man in denial of his PTSD and an avid Trump supporter - a characteristic that manifests itself into physical hatred throughout the film - in that moment, we finally get a glimpse of life through his eyes.
Jonathan Majors (fresh off The Last Black Man In San Francisco) both challenges and compliments Lindo as his son, David. I know I said that some aspects of the film are predictable, but there are also a lot of things that aren’t. David is one of them. He joins his father and the rest of “da bloods” on their search, and in some ways becomes a source of catharsis for all of them.
Lindo and Majors, along with the other leads Clark Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. have some stellar chemistry. You really do believe in the bond they’ve forged, despite some occasional animosity.
Along the way “da bloods” encounter three other characters. The always enjoyable Paul Walter Hauser plays one of them, and while I don’t necessarily have a problem with their presence in the story, because they do have a purpose, their inevitable trust and involvement with the operation just never feels earned.
"...Determined to change the world through the awareness it presents..."
Da 5 Bloods (2020) | NETFLIX
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
It blows my mind that the same genius who crafted Do The Right Thing also did this, and I mean that in the best way possible. All of the action sequences are incredible, and are a true testament to how far Lee has come as a director.
Surprisingly, there’s little makeup used even though the older actors also play younger versions of themselves. It’s not distracting though, nor does it make it harder to suspend your disbelief. It’s actually a powerful choice that suggests that the old men don’t remember how young they truly were when they fought.
While a majority of the film takes place in the jungles of Vietnam, the set design that we do see throughout Ho Chi Minh City is gorgeous. It’s a stark contrast to the Vietnam that “da bloods” remember.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Terence Blanchard’s score is one of the film’s other highlights in addition to Lindo’s performance and Lee’s direction. Blanchard is in so much control of the film’s tone that one could probably argue that he’s a major contributor to the film’s sound design too. He can (and often does) turn light-hearted moments to grim ones through his music, and it’s because of his ability to turn on a dime that Lee’s most suspenseful moments are particularly effective.
In addition to the score, there are several select songs by Marvin Gaye that make deliberate appearances throughout the film too. The most prominent though is an acapella version of “What’s Going On,” that plays when “da bloods” get separated. Not only are the lyrics speaking to their relationship at that point in time, but it’s also speaking to how they have no idea what they’re up against.
Over a decade ago, Lee tried his hand at another war film, Miracle At St. Anna. While I still perceive it to be a good film, I don’t think it resonated with audiences as much at the time because it wasn’t relevant. It came from a place of admiration, as opposed to determination like this film does. Like Blackkklansman before it, this film not only follows characters determined to get their own justice, but it’s also determined to change the world through the awareness it presents. Da 5 Bloods is a much needed reminder that this country was built on false promises by immigrants and slaves. Until we all come to terms with that there will never be peace. Peace is this country’s very own buried treasure. As much as most of us want to find it, somehow at every corner there’s still someone trying to trump us.