The Ghosts of Vietnam: Da 5 Bloods (2020) - Reviewed

The irony of a disenfranchised minority group being sent to a war to represent a country who didn't give a damn about them is not lost on Spike Lee, and he attacks this theme head on with his newest "joint" Da 5 Bloods (2020). Four black Vietnam war vets return to Vietnam to reclaim their fallen comrade's remains and to also search for a lost treasure--a box of gold bars that was hidden by them previously in the humid jungle. War has taken its toll on these men both mentally and physically, and getting their treasure back is fraught with danger and strife.

Paul (Delroy Lindo), David (Jonathan Majors), Otis (Clarke Peters), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) comprise four of the the 5 Bloods and their long dead friend Norman is played by Chadwick Boseman. In an interesting choice, Lee has the still living members portrayed as old men in the flashbacks with Norman as a young man. It makes sense thematically, because they are still alive to remember the past and Norman isn’t. He is forever immortalized in their memory as a man full of fire and energy. Lee further differentiates the past and the present by using different aspect ratios, with the past mimicking the square 1.33:1 ratio of 16mm and the present in a widened out 2.39:1 ratio. The transition between ratios is seamless and an intriguing way to separate the two time periods.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Delroy Lindo's turn as the PTSD stricken Paul, is the standout performance of the film, and his desperate, angry, and ultimately broken character sears through the narrative like a hot poker. Towards the end of the film he delivers several fantastic sweaty monologues looking directly at the camera while marching through the jungle shouting at everyone and no one, throwing his fury into the universe. One quirk he has is that he is a Trump supporter, even wearing the bright red Make America Great Again hat, perhaps a visual symbol of his misdirected rage. These men were left behind emotionally after the war even if their physical bodies made it back to American soil.

To a lesser extent, Da 5 Bloods showcases the Vietnamese experience. They actually have subtitles when they speak unlike similar war movies I have seen. Lack of subtitles contributes to “othering” them instead of humanizing them. The dichotomy between the culture clash of the veterans and the locals is part of the tension of the film. The Bloods occupy a duality--their status as a subjugated minority, but also a representative of a jingoistic US military force, and these two diametrically opposed states of being are constantly in flux affecting their perception in Vietnam.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

On the technical side of things, this film is a bit messy with some strange pacing in the second act and a few too many convenient plot turns here and there. The middle of the film could use some tightening up and the action choreography feels chaotic and unfocused. That being said, on the whole the film has some beautiful sequences with a few of Lee's famous dolly shots thrown in for good measure. The score, by frequent Spike Lee collaborator and jazz musician Terence Blanchard, is gorgeous--a mixture of warm orchestral pieces punctuated by a mournful saxophone leitmotif.

Although it is rough around the edges, Spike Lee's passion and intent shines through in Da 5 Bloods, and it is a powerful statement about both the love and hate that undying loyalty can bring.

--Michelle Kisner