Cinema Dispatch: Da 5 Bloods

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Da 5 Bloods and all the images you see in this review are owned by Netflix

Directed by Spike Lee

It’s not often that a film gets released at the EXACT moment it should be, but leave it to Spike Lee to make a movie worth talking about at a time when its message couldn’t be more relevant.  I’ve certainly liked more of Spike Lee’s movie’s than I haven’t with Chi-Raq being a downright masterpiece and it’s like movie studios are giving us anything else worth watching at this period of time (including Disney who thought putting Artemis Fowl on Disney+ was a better idea than just chucking it in a garbage can), so consider me pumped to see something important instead of just spending another evening watching reruns and staring at the ceiling!  Is Spike Lee’s timely examination of Black people’s relationship to the Vietnam War and by extension the systems created it which are still in place to this day, or is Lee like the rest of us and finds himself missing a step in these unusual times?  Let’s find out!!

Nearly fifty years after their tour in Vietnam, the remaining members of The Bloods return to Vietnam to reconnect, remember the good times, and find their fallen comrade Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who died during the war and whose body is still out there.  Our surviving members are Paul, Otis, Eddie, and Melvin (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr) as well as an unexpected fifth member David (Jonathan Majors) who’s the son of Paul and wants to keep an eye on him during this trip.  Now that’s all MOSTLY true, but there are some details missing such as the fact that The Bloods buried a whole bunch of gold back then and are out here to find it along with Stormin’ Norman to secure their retirements, though saying that to the US government who’s gold it is they’re digging up (it was supposed to be delivered to the Vietnamese government that was declared a loss after the plane crashed), so they omitted that part when they appealed to both countries’ governments to explore the area.  And so the journey begins, with our heroes telling stories of their time in the war, confronting the demons of their past, and hopefully leaving the country far richer than they entered it.  Will The Bloods find what they are looking for in this country they left long ago, and will it be what they came to find in the first place?  What hardships will they face along the way, and will their struggles ultimately be in vain?  How the heck is it that the ONE dude to die in the war was Black Panther!?  Isn’t he bulletproof!?

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“Did you find any vibranium yet?”     “That joke wasn’t funny the first time you made it, and it sure as heck isn’t funny the FIFTIETH time you made!!”

A way to look at films is to think of it as two halves of a cohesive whole, the narrative and the production, and how much weight you put on one or the other can determine how different people will feel about it.  I don’t feel particularly qualified to review this movie because what works about this movie is its narrative, but I just didn’t connect with it the way that I’m sure its target audience, as well as the people being represented in the film, ultimately will.  The film is plagued with a lot of technical issues and bizarre choices that kept taking me out of the movie, all of which are exacerbated by its crushingly long run time, and the story being told here, while certainly engaging to an extent, just didn’t grab me enough to overlook its issues.  That said, I’m hard-pressed to think of a movie that I’ve seen at least which explores the experiences of black veterans, especially ones who were in as bloody and morally compromised as the Vietnam War, and Spike Lee if nothing else makes movies that don’t conform to what you expect to see in other Hollywood films.  For a lot of people, this will surely be a film that reaches them in a way that few films have and I do appreciate it for doing that, but I just wish the journey wasn’t so plodding and inconsistent to make the most of its subject matter.

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“Are we there yet?”     “I swear, if you ask me ONE MORE TIME!!”

There’s a lot about this movie to like and most of it involves the performances.  Some of the Bloods are definitely lower on the card than the others, but all four of our actors here along with Paul’s son played by Jonathan Majors do a great job of not just reading the dialogue they’re given but imbuing it with nuanced and the characters’ troubled histories.  Paul in particular is the one that seems to be Spike Lee’s focus as he’s given the most screen time and the most emotional range to work with; going so far as to grant him full on soliloquies about the injustices he had to face.  What adds that extra layer of depth, however, are his despicable flaws which you can ascribe to his PTSD but his selfish attitudes, his disregard for his son, and his toxic masculinity make him the kind of imperfect person that makes it difficult to root for or jeer in the traditional MOVIE sense.  Heck, the dude wears a MAGA hat throughout the whole thing, and he himself doesn’t seem to realize why he genuinely supports a man who’s harmed his own community (and probably himself) in such heinous ways, but you can’t say it’s a completely unrealistic character because of that.  The movie also has a strong undercurrent of humor going throughout it that pops up here and there but adds to the humanity of the characters who are essentially on an eighties style adventure movie like City Slickers with the real-life tragedies that these men had to live thru and survive bringing a sense of despair whenever things get too light.  If the movie had focused on that and trimmed out a lot of the excess running time then this could have been in the higher echelon of Lee’s filmography; not that Lee’s any stranger to making long movies, but out of all the movies of his that I’ve seen, this one that simply fails to live up to its initial promise.

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“Let our powers combine!”     “Are you serious, David?  You’re gonna go there right now?”     “What, you don’t think we’d make great Planeteers?”

Where the movie struggles is basically everything around its core strengths; namely its filmmaking and pacing which feel rather amateurish at points.  Spike Lee has always been known for his distinctive style and it’s worked well in a lot of his movies, but in this, it feels like he’s throwing as much as he can against the wall to see what sticks.  There’s precisely ONE scene in the entire movie where they play with camera angles and perspective in service of the narrative (David is made to look much smaller next to his father and his friends) but then it’s never seen again.  The cinematic changing of aspect ratios to indicate the start of a flashback was a cute idea, but why were the Bloods from fifty years ago played by the exact same actors with no de-aging makeup or effects used?  Even if it was intentional for some reason that I’m too ignorant to grasp, it comes off as a distraction as these dudes with wrinkles and gray hair are pretending to be naïve young soldiers.  Some of that could have been easily ignored, and I was willing to do that for the first half of this movie, but what kills it is the pacing.  When I say the first half of the movie, I genuinely thought we were approaching the film’s ending when I checked and saw that we were only halfway thru, so on top of its strange decisions it also feels really padded in places while anemic in others.  As I said, most of the Bloods don’t have a whole lot to do in this movie due to how much focus Paul gets, and there’s a subplot here involving Clarke Peters and a hereto unknown daughter that FEELS like it’s going to be important or be part of some greater twist at the end but is ultimately just another thing that’s there to be poignant for a minute or two before being shoved aside for whatever else this movie wants to do.

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You’ve got five minutes, Reno!  Make it count!

The second half is really where the film’s bugbears come home to roost, and while I can say that one thing about it was REALLY good, it just felt like a C-tier knock off of the fourth Rambo movie; especially when you get the borderline wacky French people who are almost note-for-note the dopey missionaries from that movie.  Lee just seems uninterested in shooting the action scenes; in the flashbacks and ESPECIALLY in the finale.  They look cheap, the actors look lost and unsure how to carry themselves, and the special effects looked ripped out of a late nineties straight to video feature.  I can’t remember the last time I actually NOTICED muzzle flashes in a movie, but when the guns keep using THE SAME muzzle flashes over and over again it’s hard to ignore.  What’s also hard to ignore is how violent things get in the second half to the point that the drama itself starts to be obscured by how much REALLY awful bloodshed there as points in this and not in a way that feels genuinely heart wrenching but more like an indulgence.  MAYBE this kind of drama works better without guns and without shootouts as whatever the merits of Delroy Lindo’s character feel needlessly undercut.  The troubles that Paul had to face in life and the injustices that were put upon him are terrible and the film’s examination of them is easily the best part of the second half of the movie, but once he starts waving a gun around and starts kidnapping people it loses some of its importance in the narrative, at least to me.

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“No, see it wasn’t MY fault that things went bad; they were all just wussies!  Isn’t that right, MAGA hat!?”     “You’ve got it, Paul!”     “See, that’s why I like you!  Always there to back me up!”     “Don’t forget to build the wall!”    “Alright, quit nagging!”

If the movie was shorter, I’d probably have given this an easy recommendation; warts and all.  For whatever reason though, Netflix seems to prefer their features overlong and bloated so my recommendation comes rather tepidly and with a few asterisks.  If you don’t mind the not so great filmmaking, the way the plot meanders at points, and the rather mindless action shootout ending that has all the polish of a Bruno Matai film, then maybe you’ll enjoy this as long as the running time doesn’t scare you off, but the thing is I’ve seen Lee do a lot better in his other films than he managed to pull off here.  The filmmaking isn’t as good as Chiraq, the action isn’t even as good as his adaptation of Oldboy which wasn’t exactly an award-winning spectacle, and while I appreciate what it’s trying to accomplish and what it’s saying, at least for me the gut punches in films like Do The Right Thing and BlacKkKlansman just ended up hitting harder.  Then again, I can only speak from my own experiences and there are certainly nuances to this story that I just won’t understand and shouldn’t really be commenting on, so for what it’s worth I can give this a tentative recommendation.  Then again, Chiraq is just one streaming service away…

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