Longtime MCC readers know the rule: every film I see in theaters gets its own entry. That rule hasn’t come up much lately because (previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover) our last theater experience was the first weekend of March. Entries about my home video consumption tend to be a no-fly zone for any kind of inbound traffic, but every so often I’ll ignore my blog stats and go for it anyway. Then again, that’s my approach to 90% of what I post here, so why hold my viewing habits to a tougher standard?
I do miss theaters. To a lesser degree I miss racking my brain for the occasional movie entry. I do go out on a limb for the occasional Netflix Original. And though I’ve only seen six previous Spike Lee films (that really should be higher), it seemed remiss to watch his new joint Da 5 Bloods and then do nothing else to engage with the experience.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Once upon a time in 1971 in the middle of the Vietnam War, five Black soldiers come across a lost cache of CIA gold bullion that was intended as a payoff to a local tribe in exchange for help against the Viet Cong. With its transporters out of the picture, Our Heroes — who can’t possibly lug hundreds of pounds of loot around in their backpacks for the rest of their tours of duty — stash the bullion and vow to come back for it one day. Things get messier when their leader “Stormin’ Norman” Holloway (Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman) is killed in the middle of a firefight. His brothers-in-arms bury him near the gold and add “return for his remains” to their future to-do list.
Fast-forward to today: the four surviving vets reunite and travel back to the former war zone to recover what they left behind. Although the four actors play themselves in the past and the present, they’re not the same men they were four decades ago. They’ve brought bigger backpacks, but they’ve also brought their baggage. Thus the struggle is real as they face up to long-standing consequences of a war they never asked to fight, and soon realize one does not merely traipse around the jungle carrying millions in treasure without attracting the wrong kind of attention.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. from The Wire are of course the headliners in my mind, but that’s just me. (For longtime MCC readers keeping track, this is the 162nd entry to name-check The Wire, but this time it’s less gratuitous.) Rounding out Dem Bloods are Broadway star Norm Lewis (The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables) and The Good Fight costar Delroy Lindo (I just watched him the other night in Lee’s Clockers). Lindo’s character Paul reluctantly allows a fifth wheel along, his adult son David (Jonathan Majors from The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which I still need to see).
White people along the way who may or may not be hindrances include two holdovers from Lee’s last film BlacKkKlansman, Jasper Pääkkönen and Paul Walter Hauser (a.k.a. Richard Jewell), and Jean Reno (The Professional, Godzilla) as a shady French businessman enlisted to help launder the bullion. Among the handful of Vietnamese actors on hand (who include stuntman Johnny Trí Nguyễn as Our Heroes’ helpful tour guide and later ally), the clear-cut winner is Veronica Ngo (Rose Tico’s sister Paige from The Last Jedi) enjoying two scenes as the film’s lone real-life personality — radio propagandist Hanoi Hannah, that war’s answer to Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose, all too happy to remind Black soldiers about their raw deal.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? In the opening montage of archival photos and videos, a clip of Malcolm X recaps the American military’s historical indifference to Black men who’ve fought on its behalf over the ages. The tens of thousands who fought in the Civil War and the hundreds of thousands who fought in WWII basically saw the same outcomes: their service made a difference in the outcome, but once victory was achieved, society shoved them back down to oppressed underclass status and preexisting injustices resumed their normal racist schedule. Quite a few WWII soldiers were eager volunteers, and obviously Civil War slaves had a stake in the proceedings, but Vietnam was not the same story. Men who couldn’t escape the draft through college enrollment or medical excuses — and hey, guess which demographics benefited most — followed orders and returned Stateside to an identical lack of welcome-home embrace, same as their predecessors…albeit arguably for slightly different reasons.
So it’s easy to sympathize with those who survived an indescribably godawful experience and wouldn’t mind some cash payback. The word “reparations” does come into play at least once.
At first everything goes peacefully in their return to Vietnam, where reactions to what they call “the American War” vary depending on ancestral experiences. Some, such as their tour guide Vinh and two elder gents they encounter at a bar, have moved on and welcome the visitors. For others whose families died in that war, “forgive and forget” is unconscionable and they, too, wouldn’t mind some payback. And of course there’s always someone, regardless of sides, who doesn’t care about history and just wants to get paid.
But it’s not entirely about the money for Our Heroes. Well, okay, maybe it is for one of them. But Otis (Clarke Peters) has his own side quest involving an old flame (Lê Y Lan) and an eye-opening digression on how America doesn’t hold a monopoly on racism.
As for Lindo’s Paul…it’s complicated. Today he’s a Trump voter, proudly sporting That Hat and loving the idea of building the mythical Wall that will solve everything. His camaraderie with his old war buddies runs deep, and they’re of a generation that can discuss political differences without strangling each other, but he also suffers the most demonstrable case of PTSD that kicks in at the worst times. “We ALL have PTSD!” says an exasperated Otis, who isn’t exaggerating, but everyone else seems to be managing theirs. Paul is not — he’s the most uncomfortable (and racist) around their old enemies, and the first to go off the rails when danger strikes later. The amount of direct correlation that could be posited between his unresolved emotional trauma and his Trump fandom is extra-credit essay homework for the viewer. (I’ll even give you a title: “Are They All This Broken Inside?”)
As if Paul weren’t busy enough, he’s also bugged by the strained father/son dynamic between him and David. While he’s clearly a working-class manly-man veteran, David is a soft, amiable schoolteacher who’s spent good money on lots of Morehouse College wearable merch. He knows why Dad is going on this trip and thinks he ought to be there for him, because that’s what some sons do for their fathers — even neglectful, emotionally distant ones. David eventually has choices to make when it comes to dealing with his real dad versus those who were like a dad. And when weapons are drawn, he’s well out of his academic element.
Other subjects explored to varying degrees include but aren’t limited to:
- The difficulty of second-guessing what our deceased leaders “would want us to do”
- 50-year-old active minefields are still a problem in Vietnam (this lesson brought to you by an activist played by Mélanie Thierry from Terry Gilliam’s Zero Theorem
- Everyone decries America for its calamitous meddling in Vietnam, but why doesn’t anyone ever drag France for their even worse history over there?
- If you’re getting Paid with a capital P, maybe give some thought to those who could also use an assist
…and, same as Lee did with BlacKkKlansman, there’s a coda that connects the proceedings to present-day hot-button issues and reminds us some movies can and should exist outside a neutral vacuum.
Nitpicking? We learn Paul’s PTSD has a root cause beyond just “The War”, but its revelation was more of a moment of “Ohhh, okay, no wonder” instead of what should’ve been a heart-wrenching shock. It didn’t help that I recently saw an episode of Battlestar Galactica with a similar situation.
Remember when I mentioned Chadwick Boseman was in this film? His flashback scenes are so few and so brief that we never get a sense of why Da Other 4 Bloods revere him with any depth beyond He Was One Of Us. Unless we’re meant to accept that any character played by Chadwick Boseman is awesome on principle. I mean, so far it’s true (I say this as one of five viewers who remember him from NBC’s Persons Unknown), but it feels odd for a 2½-hour film to take a shortcut like that.
Along those same lines, Isiah Whitlock Jr. gets zero backstory, but I feel like it’s enough that they gave us an alt-history version of Senator Clay Davis from The Wire that answers the question, “What if Senator Davis ever had to hold a rifle?” So he comes comes aboard, hangs out, and in one of the film’s funniest scenes — and there’re many of those competing — Lee gets him to say his catchphrase. If you know the character, you know the one. It’s not the film’s only meta touch, but it’s the best.
I Was Also Seriously Distracted By How Every Word In The Subtitles Was Capitalized. Then I Looked up Lee’s Twitter Feed And Was Like, “Ah, Okay. So That’s His Thing, Like Jaden Smith. Cool.”
So what’s to like? If you’re among older viewers bothered by Hollywood ageism and eager for more films starring your fellow elderly, assuming you can handle nasty bursts of war violence and you aren’t racist, Da 5 Bloods is here for you with its director and four main stars who range in age from 57 to 68. Even more surprising: none of them plays the standard Hollywood role of the doleful Black sage whose every utterance is a life lesson. Nobody is the honorary Danny Glover or Morgan Freeman here.
And the least sage of all is Delroy Lindo’s Paul, a walking cyclone of precarious mental and emotional states, shifting at every stray wind and sawing through any calm demeanor standing in his path at the wrong time. He’s complex and worrisome and sick and defiant at once, no simple far-right caricature, especially terrifying in one particular moment when Lee invites him to stare down the camera and monologue through his imbalances. It might’ve been even scarier if he’d performed it around a nighttime campfire, but Lee already checked off his mandatory Apocalypse Now homage in an earlier sequence. If Lindo isn’t given proper respect in next year’s Zoom-chat film-awards ceremonies, we start toppling Oscar statuettes.
Film geeks have fun tidbits to note here and there — how they implemented cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s idea to switch aspect ratios and media with the eras; how Lee sneaks in homages to other films; and, the riskiest artifice of all, how they had the four actors play the same characters in both eras. The battles are staged with enough swiftness and unassuming camera angles that you never feel like you’re watching guys as pudgy as me combating far beyond their physical level, so it surprisingly works just fine without slapping on layers of de-aging makeup or debatable CGI. (‘sup, The Irishman?)
Working with three other writers (including the two showrunners behind 1990’s Flash TV series), Lee adroitly sets up Da 5 Bloods as a tense postwar drama whose final acts accelerate through commercial suspense-thriller mechanics while never stopping the commentary. After the first twenty minutes’ camaraderie I began secretly hoping the film would just be 2½ hours of these same four actors chatting over a series of dinners, but alas, such pleasures are fleeting and left behind when stuff gets real. It’s human nature to yearn for easy comfort when war is over, but when the war isn’t over, it’s ignorant for your only response to be a lazy thumbs-down.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a brief clip after Da 5 Bloods end credits. For those who let the Netflix app skip to the next flick in their queue or exited prematurely and really want to know without going to the trouble of clicking on the film again and sliding the cursor all the way down to the final minute:
The last shot is cast and crew gathering before the camera in a pre-quarantine huddle. In unison they shout Senator Clay Davis’ famous one-word catchphrase from The Wire, a four-letter word with its customary fifteen extra vowels.