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Band of brothers – ‘Da 5 Bloods’

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What a perfect time to get another Spike Lee joint.

Granted, there’s never a BAD time to get a movie from America’s greatest black filmmaker, but considering the state of the world in which we’re currently living, the sort of live-wire storytelling that is Lee’s specialty is particularly welcome. No one brings the sort of electric social consciousness to the screen that he does, along with style and vision that is unparalleled among his peers.

His latest offering is “Da 5 Bloods,” currently streaming on Netflix. It’s a story of a quartet of Vietnam veterans returning to the country for the first time since the war, each carrying the world-weariness of age along with the emotional burdens that still endure from their time in battle. The foursome are on a sort of dual quest to make right the real and perceived wrongs that they have suffered, all in service to the brotherhood they formed in that life-or-death time.

It’s a typical stylistic triumph from Lee, featuring the blending of aesthetic techniques and cultural touchstones that mark his best work. And he mines truly exceptional performances from his talented cast – again, the usual. This movie – much like so many others in his oeuvre – contains multitudes in a way that no other filmmaker can match, but that’s not really surprising – there’s only one Spike Lee.

Four men arrive in Vietnam. It’s a reunion of sorts – Paul (Delroy Lindo, TV’s “The Good Fight”), Otis (Clarke Peters, “Come Away”), Eddie (Norm Lewis, “Just Mercy”) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., “Seneca”) fought side by side during the Vietnam conflict a half-century ago. The years since haven’t always been kind, but the connection remains strong and true between them.

They’ve returned to Vietnam for two reasons – one overt and one secret. Their plan is to try and track down the remains of their former platoon leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman, “21 Bridges”) – who we meet in flashback – so that they might return his body to be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.

However, they’re also hoping to track down something else – something considerably more lucrative. They were involved in a mission to salvage a downed plane, one that contained a payment for guerilla troops that the US wanted to enlist to their cause. The group located the payment – a chest filled with gold bars – and chose to hide it in hopes of returning to dig it up later. However, circumstances prevented them from going back and they assumed all was lost.

But when a mudslide reveals what might be the crashed plane’s tail section, the men realize that they might be able to finally find what they’ve hoped to locate all these years.

Of course, complications arise. Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors, “Jungleland”) finds out what his dad is up to and follows him to Vietnam. Otis reunites with his old flame Tien (Le Y Lan, “Ip Man 3”), who introduces the men to Desroche (Jean Reno, “Cold Blood”), a questionable character who will help them move the gold. And David crosses paths with Hedy (Melanie Thierry, “The Wind Turns”), a worker for a landmine NGO who is there with her associates Simon (Paul Walter Hauser, “Richard Jewell”) and Seppo (Jasper Paakkonen, “BlacKkKlansman”).

The four men and David make their way into the jungle, searching for both their fallen friend and for the riches they left buried. However, that’s not all they dig up – memories and feelings from the past and the present are pulled to the surface, leaving the men to confront the choices that they have made along the way. And while they are no longer in a war zone, there is still danger lurking everywhere – including some that they simply aren’t ready for.

“Da 5 Bloods” is another phenomenal piece of filmmaking from Spike Lee. He possesses a unique ability to utilize snippets of reality to inform and expand upon the ideas put forth in his films. He’s unafraid to go in hard on his messaging, incorporating clips and still images from history to point out the harsh realities of the world in which his men have lived their lives. It’s an acknowledgement of the outsized role that black men have played – willingly or otherwise – in the wars waged by this country. Through the Bloods, both past and present, we get a glimpse of that experience, of what it means to fight for a country that still views you as somehow less than.

Lee marks his shifts in perspective in a particularly striking way, changing techniques between scenes set in the past and those in the present day. Today’s scenes are filmed in the standard way, but when he moves to the past, he switches to 16 MM, with all that entails. The colors, the aspect ratio – all different. It’s a fantastic device, one that proves wonderfully effective.

(In addition, he makes the unconventional choice to eschew casting younger actors or engaging in digital de-aging for the flashback scenes, instead opting to simply have his older actors play their younger selves as is. It’s a choice that perhaps doesn’t quite fully work, but is admirable nonetheless.)

He’s also a deft hand at wielding his encyclopedic knowledge of pop cultural and film history, incorporating elements that serve to exponentially elevate the proceedings in subtle, yet impactful ways. There are too many to list, but here are a couple of standouts. There’s a repurposing of Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” that both engages with and sharply lampoons that song’s presence in “Apocalypse Now.” And there’s a recurring motif involving the isolated vocal track of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that is hauntingly beautiful. The list goes on.

And then we have the performances. Delroy Lindo has long been one of the most consistently excellent actors out there, albeit almost criminally underrated. His work here is simply outstanding, a complex look at a crumbling psyche whose guilt and self-loathing color every aspect of his existence. It is raw and brutal, an elite performance that deserves all of the awards for which it will almost certainly be nominated. Majors is great as well, taking us along as he is confronted by the realities of his relationship to his father. Peters brings a low-key geniality to Otis, while Lewis endows Eddie with a too-shiny bombast. Whitlock is a bundle of charm as Melvin. As a collective, they are amazing, bringing forth a very real sense of camaraderie that is undeniable.

The supporting players all shine as well, though there are a few that stand a bit above. Thierry and Hauser are great as the do-good mine hunters who wind up in over their heads. Reno endows Desroche with a spot-on oily untrustworthiness. And in Boseman’s hands, Norman is a perfectly reluctant hero, one with bold ideas that he is unafraid to convey loudly and proudly.

“Da 5 Bloods” arrives at a time when films of its sort are of particular import. Spike Lee has never been afraid to speak his mind and address the inequities in the system as he sees them. This film follows in that grand tradition, taking a frank look at American war and those who fight it while deconstructing the notion of what it means to be a hero. It is visually stunning and heartbreakingly performed, a cinematic shot to the soul that adeptly illustrates the truth behind the idea that war is hell.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 15 June 2020 11:13

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