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On Netflix: DA 5 BLOODS (2020)

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DA 5 BLOODS
(US - 2020)

Directed by Spike Lee. Written by Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee. Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Chadwick Boseman, Jean Reno, Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Paakkonen, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Le Y Lan, Nguyen Ngoc Lam, Sandy Huong Pham, Van Veronica Ngo. (R, 155 mins)

His 2018 film BLACKkKLANSMAN reflected a still-open wound with its release timed to the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville tragedy, but DA 5 BLOODS finds Spike Lee making a film boiling with such rage over systemic racism that it could've been shot in the last two weeks. Of course, that systemic racism is there and always has been, but no film in recent memory has felt more "of the moment" than this, a sprawling and ambitious epic that does, on a few occasions, get too uneven and too unwieldy for its good. Lee and BLACKkKLANSMAN co-writer Kevin Willmott extensively reworked an existing script called THE LAST TOUR, written in 2013 by the team of Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, who got their start in the '80s writing cult sci-fi B movies like TRANCERS and ELIMINATORS for Charles Band's Empire Pictures. They soon moved up to THE ROCKETEER for Disney and into TV with the CBS series THE FLASH (DA 5 BLOODS also marks the final writing credit for DeMeo, who died in 2018 and gets a special acknowledgement in the end credits). Bilson and DeMeo have always had an affinity for men-on-a-mission wartime scenarios, from 1986's ZONE TROOPERS all the way to 2013's DTV video-game spinoff THE COMPANY OF HEROES and it's their LAST TOUR script that provides the foundation for DA 5 BLOODS, as four aging vets go back to Vietnam of the present day, ostensibly to retrieve the remains of their fallen friend, but with a second, off-the-record reason: to retrieve a chest of CIA gold they retrieved from a plane crash in 1971 and buried.






That B-movie premise has Bilson's and DeMeo's fingerprints all over it--one can imagine them saying "It's THE DEER HUNTER meets KELLY'S HEROES!"--but Lee goes bigger. He's mining superficially similar territory here with the African-American POV of his 2008 WWII film MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA, but DA 5 BLOODS tracks the fury of '60s activism (clips of Malcolm X, MLK, Kwame Ture) all the way through to the advent of Black Lives Matter and the Age of Trump, whose presence is felt here even beyond being referred to as "President Fake Bone Spurs." The four vets are Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Paul (Delroy Lindo), and though an ensemble piece for the most part, it's Paul who becomes the emotional center of the film. Still suffering from PTSD, short-tempered, paranoid, and with an ever-present chip on his shoulder and looking for confrontation everywhere, staunch conservative Paul is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off even before he starts parroting Trump talking points about immigrants, fake news, and "building the wall," plus other derogatory terms for the Vietnamese people. All of the men are haunted by the death of their unit leader and friend "Stormin' Norman" (Chadwick Boseman in flashbacks), killed in action back in 1971 just after they retrieved and buried the gold, but Paul has been unable to move on. That extends to his fractured relationship with his son David (Jonathan Majors), a liberal Black Studies instructor at Morehouse who's earned nothing but scornful derision from his father ("You've been an anchor around my neck since the day you were born"). Though there's no affection between them, David shows up at their Saigon hotel unexpectedly out of concern for his dad and insists on tagging along, telling him "You've been acting more crazy than usual."





Through wealthy investment broker Tien (Le Y Lan), a former prostitute that Otis knew during what the Vietnamese call "The American War," they meet with Desroche (Jean Reno), a French money launderer who agrees to convert the gold to cash for a 22% share (it was only 20%, but Paul starts getting belligerent about Normandy and how America had to "save France's ass" during WWII). With a map provided by guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), they head back into the jungles of 'Nam in search of the gold and the burial spot of Stormin' Norman, with Paul sporting a red MAGA hat to everyone's disdain. The journey begins with a slow boat ride accompanied by Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," which isn't the only APOCALYPSE NOW reference over the course of the film. There's even an APOCALYPSE NOW banner in a nightclub in downtown Saigon, where neon signs for McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and KFC illustrate how things have changed in the nearly 50 years since they were last there. There's also an invocation of "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, and the references, shout-outs and the loose, freewheeling nature--with occasional cutaways to North Vietnamese radio propagandist Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo)-- make this feel like a Quentin Tarantino film at times, not in terms of any revisionist history (Melvin does take the time to mock the '80s "free the POW" movies of Sylvester Stallone and "Walker, Texas Ranger"), but in a more enraged and politically substantive manner. Unlike what Bilson and DeMeo wrote for THE LAST TOUR, DA 5 BLOODS explores in depth the experience of the black soldier in Vietnam (Hanoi Hannah reminding them "Black G.I., is it fair that Negroes make up 11% of the US population but among American troops, you are 32%?) in ways that Hollywood typically hasn't focused on, aside from the mid '90s films DEAD PRESIDENTS and the virtually forgotten THE WALKING DEAD.





DA 5 BLOODS doesn't always feel cohesive as far as how the Bilson/DeMeo material meshes with what was written later by Lee and Willmott. At times, it's a straight-up treasure-hunt adventure once some Vietnamese adversaries led by the embittered Quan (Nguyen Ngoc Lam) enter the picture. It's also prone to some hard-to-swallow contrivances, like the discovery of the gold and Stormin' Norman's remains, as well as a trio of activists (Melanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jasper Paakkonen) who go into war zones to find and defuse land mines showing up exactly when their services are needed. Terence Blanchard's otherwise fine score seems a little intrusive and overbearing in the flashbacks, which Lee frames in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with the jungle sequences at 1.85 and the Saigon scenes at 2.35. And as welcome as it might be, the anti-Trump sentiment feels occasionally wedged in, especially in an earlier scene where David has a conversation with the three activists at a Saigon bar. Lee also takes a big risk in having Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock play their characters in the flashbacks minus any IRISHMAN-like CGI de-aging, but it works because they're presented in a kind-of stream-of-consciousness fashion and he mainly keeps the four of them in shadows or in the background as the focus is on Boseman. All in all, DA 5 BLOODS is a powerful film with a startling resonance to things happening right now. It also boasts a career-best performance by an absolutely riveting Lindo, who's alternately despicable, heartbreaking, and utterly devastating as Paul, whose story and the source of his Vietnam anguish, and the reasons he's been such an asshole to his son, don't fully come into view until late in the film, though you'll probably figure some of it out before then. Be sure to watch through the very end of the closing credits to catch a fun stinger for Isiah Whitlock Jr superfans.


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