17 Jun 2020

Movie review: Da 5 Bloods

From At The Movies, 7:31 pm on 17 June 2020

Da 5 Bloods is a Netflix production from veteran director Spike Lee. Part-thriller part-history lesson, it follows four Vietnam veterans on the hunt for buried treasure. 

Simon Morris: Spike Lee is undeniably one of the great American film-makers, blending political edge with sheer entertainment in movies like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, Get on the Bus and the recent Black Klansman.

But like his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese, he's also a huge movie fan.

Lee's latest film is both a black-history lesson and a tribute to some classic Hollywood movies.

It also couldn't be more Baby Boomer if it tried. And at the heart of the American Baby Boomer story is one event - the Vietnam War.

The Sixties - particularly that Year of Years, 1968 - was all about protest. Protest about race, as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X took to the streets. The first protests about gay rights and feminism.

But above all, it was about Vietnam, as America found itself in a war they couldn't win, and one they started to suspect they shouldn't have even been a part of.

The War scarred everyone, most of all the young American soldiers drafted to fight in it. And those soldiers mostly didn't come from the middle class who sent them there.

Over 30 percent of the American troops came from 10 percent of the population - black GIs like Otis, Paul, Melvin and Eddie.

Da 5 Bloods sees the four friends - the "bloods" as they call themselves - reuniting back in modern-day, tourist Vietnam, 50 years after their tour of duty.

Baby Boomers may be amused by the names - Otis, Paul, Melvin and Eddie were four of the original Temptations, with only David Ruffin yet to be name-checked.

The Bloods are back in Vietnam on a mission - to locate the grave of the fifth member and unofficial leader of the Bloods, Stormin' Norman - possibly a reference to the Temps' charismatic producer Norman Whitfield.

Like Whitfield, Norman was the one who wised up four naïve young soldiers to what was going on back home.

And throughout Da 5 Bloods, director Spike Lee does the same thing to his audience - whether it's the young and ignorant or the older and blinkered.

Like most Boomers, Spike Lee's interest in black history mostly covers his own lifetime - from the civil rights riots of the early Sixties to the events of the past four years under the euphemistically named "President Fake Bone Spurs".

'Look it up' Lee seems to be constantly saying.

But Spike Lee is smart enough to know that a Netflix audience doesn't want to be preached at. So he cloaks his lessons with a story of a treasure hunt, as the four amigos go up-jungle to find a case of gold bars, buried near Norman's grave.

They found the site via a computer, thanks to Paul's son. Yes, this one's called David.

Like all treasure hunts, the strength of the story is in the characters and the effect a potential fortune might have on them.

And Paul, played by veteran actor Delroy Lindo, is already the most troubled and paranoiac. He even wears a "Make America Great Again" cap, to the others' disgust.

And stirring the pot comes a villain from the country that, Paul thinks, got America into this mess in the first place.

It's Frenchman Jean Reno, though to Spike Lee's credit he allows more screen time to the French and Vietnamese point of view than, say, Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris might have!

It's ironic that Da 5 Bloods suffers from one of the faults of the film whose failings it's trying to correct. Like Gone with the Wind, it's too long, though to be fair, Spike Lee is trying to take on a lot.

But a hundred years of bad history are not going to be addressed in just one film - a film that also tips its hat at classics like Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of Sierra Madre and some of Jones's own early films.

Plot-wise, it's occasionally a rickety ride, particularly in the last hour. But history-wise it's a revelation for many of us.

If you want to know where 'Black Lives Matter' comes from, and why it's taken so long to really matter, Da 5 Bloods is a good place to start.

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