Spike Lee's 'Da 5 Bloods' Streaming On Netflix
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"Apocalypse Now" (1979)
"Full Metal Jacket" (1987)
"Do the Right Thing" (1989)
"Malcolm X" (1992)
Netflix is smart. It understands that if you give a director some money and creative freedom you can attract some major talent because Hollywood is not willing to offer such sweet deals even to proven veterans. On the downside, Netflix imposes fewer restrictions, which can lead to filmmakers not having anything to push back against and that can result in some excesses.
As with Scorsese's "The Irishman," Lee's "Da 5 Bloods" is long and boasts an epic scope in terms of both running time and the decades spanned in the stories.
For Lee's film, the focus is on four African American Vietnam War vets who, decades after the war has ended, go back to Vietnam to recover the remains of their fallen friend Stormin' Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman) as well as a buried treasure of gold. This is essentially Lee's "Apocalypse Now" and his "Treasure of Sierra Madre" with direct references to both films.
My initial reaction to the film, after a first watch, was what a glorious mess. It is a bit unwieldy, veers off in too many directions, and tries to weave in too many characters, plot strains and themes. Yet you can't take your eyes off of it, mainly because of Delroy Lindo's riveting performance as Paul. No matter where Lee tries to take his story it always seems to come back to Lindo's haunted Paul, who carries the emotional and moral weight of the film.
Paul is a fascinating character, especially coming from Lee. Paul is presented to us right off the bat as a Trump supporter and while his buddies rib him for his political stance no one thinks any less of him for his choice.
But Paul is also the one most driven to recover Norman's body, most outraged by the cost of the war, and most eager to dig up the millions in gold. It is also Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors of "Last Black Man in San Francisco") who upsets the group's plan by barging in and demanding a share. Paul's troubled relationship with his son is yet another strand of this complicated tale.
What is both fascinating and aggravating in the film is how artistically daring and innovative Lee is on certain levels combined with how formulaic and pedestrian some of the plot is. Everything that is introduced — a team that clears old land mines, a reference to falling on a grenade, a red MAGA hat — gets used in the most predictable manner so that everything, no matter how messy the journey, get neatly tied up.
Yet Lee also displays bold stylistic flourishes. His choice to do flashbacks with all the actors at their current age playing their younger selves and to announce each flashback by simply changing to an old school square aspect ratio but then also using that aspect ratio for present-day shots as well. These choices force us to consider how the Vietnam War shaped these men and impacted their entire lives.
This is an interesting film to follow "BlacKkKlansman," which might be his most slickly packaged Hollywood film. That film won him his first Oscar because Lee gave Hollywood a film it could easily embrace. "Da 5 Bloods," although much bigger in scope and scale, actually feels more personal and more artistically daring.
And no matter what complaints I might have about certain aspects of the film, the emotional impact of Paul's final confrontation with his past is so powerful, so heartbreaking and so well realized that it makes up for any of the film's shortcomings. That is one thing Lee is always good at, packing an emotional punch. He knows where to find pain, where to see the roots of moral outrage, where to highlight injustice, and then he places all those emotions and ideas front and center.
In some ways, this film is his most angry but it is also his most hopefully healing one. He uses newsreel footage of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, as well as references to today's current Black Lives Matter protests. Lee's films are frequently about activism, about being outraged over injustice and wanting to see change whether it's Laurence Fishburne telling us all to "wake up" at the end of "School Daze" or Mookie in "Do the Right Thing" demanding his money from Sal.
I hope that when cinemas reopen that "Da 5 Bloods" will get a theatrical release. It is a film that deserves being seen on a big screen in a darkened theater with an audience sharing the experience. I have always loved Lee's films, even decidedly flawed ones like "Bamboozled," because he is such a ferocious and passionate storyteller.