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Spike Lee Da 5 Bloods Review

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Da 5 Bloods | Review

Da 5 Bloods | Review

Things Fall Apart: Lee’s New Joint Unearths a Heart of Darkness Alive and Well

Spike Lee Da 5 Bloods Review“There is no story that is not true,” wrote Chinua Achebe in his classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, a seminal Nigerian text which deals with the southeastern part of the country’s introduction to the first round of Europeans in the late 19th century, and, of course, colonialism. Conversely, the suggestion is, every story is true, even if those who tell them wouldn’t necessarily agree—to exist is a certain truth. But whether perspective is the true scribe or just the inchoate cohort of every narrative’s origin, the intentions are as suspect as any narrator is subjective.

Such deliberations have informed the formidable forte of American auteur Spike Lee, one of the few Black directors who has found prestige and longevity in a country which prizes an opposite perspective, that of the white, heteronormative majority (i.e., the colonizers). “Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, is a complex refraction of narratives and influences, an overly ambitious tangle of homage, identity and resistance, all elements provocative enough on their own which sometimes cancel each other out instead of congealing in (even paradoxical) confluence.

For as Lee portends to reinvigorate the spirit of the Black bodies gutted by the American government for the purposes of the Vietnam War utilizing cinephile markers like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), he is also attempting to redefine the origins of these inspirations, namely Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, which Achebe so famously asserted was a text which glorifies racism rather than merely providing a portrait of it. But Achebe was speaking on the depiction of Africa—the systemic racism of American systems and identities has been consumed and glorified in equally far-reaching, arguably more insidious ways.

Four Black veterans who survived Vietnam return to the country of their traumatic past to reclaim a stash of gold bricks they left behind when they were last there, as well as recover the body of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Otis (Clarke Peters) seems to have assumed their leadership position, learning his ex-love interest birthed him a daughter all those years ago but now works in imports and exports. It’s her idea to introduce Otis and his friends to a potential contact (Jean Reno) who has the connections to liquidate the gold into cash. But while the men are first overjoyed to reunite, personal issues threaten to unravel their best laid plans as they trek into the jungle, including the seemingly wealthy Eddie (Norm Lewis), the affable Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and the conservative, emotionally traumatized Paul (Delroy Lindo), whose son (Jonathan Majors) arrives unannounced over concerns for his father.

Da 5 Bloods is, often, a formidably unkempt film. It’s not incoherent so much as stuffed with subtexts and ideas, both visual and written, which bubble up out of control and distract from the pulpy mechanisms driving the rather straightforward plot. Lee and his three co-scribes (Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo and Kevin Willmott) have abandoned formalities of orientation—why now, five decades later (never mind sidestepping the fact all four of the leads should be septuagenarians), are they reuniting? Why haven’t they, for lack of a better understanding of what transpires, better prepared logistically, as far as getting their loot out of Vietnam? Why wasn’t the film set in an earlier decade which would gel with the age of the men?

Yes, Da 5 Bloods feels prescient seeing as it’s arriving for consumption at a time when it seems, on a somewhat rudimentary level, a majority of non-Black Americans seem finally open to hearing about why Black Lives Matter. But Lee is mining the same perspective, extolling the same values which has defined his oeuvre since She’s Gotta Have It in 1986—so don’t call it a comeback, Spike’s been here for years doing the heavy lifting. In other words, this is not a film so much prescient as it is fortuitous. Because Lee’s strongest films, whether period or not, convey a sense of confidence, swagger, and awesome righteousness—from Do the Right Thing to Jungle Fever to Bamboozled to BlacKkKlansmen—his attempts to reconcile the traumas of Vietnam feel about as broad as his fascination with the Italian American neighborhood in 1999’s Summer of Sam, where his own obsession outweighs the success of the final product and he isn’t able to inject the emotional integrity necessary for the film to work.

Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is at times beautiful, sometimes putrid, as Lee plays with film textures and formats, but Adam Gough, fresh off of Roma (2018), seems to have had his work cut out for him in the editing department, with certain sections of Da 5 Bloods looking shoddy (particularly in some gun fight sequences).

If the narrative feels facile, Lee’s stylistic tendencies are often welcome, perhaps more often in the Vietnam flashbacks with the charismatic Chadwick Boseman as their lost Blood—Lee’s choice to forego de-aging his four leads is less distracting than one might think in these sequences, and speaks to how their return to these traumatic memories would logically suggest this could be their own memory play, their current selves injected into figments of the past (‘there is no story that is not true’).

Each given their own defining personality, it appears the psychological ramifications of PTSD weren’t properly administered in the screenplay, which lends a camp quality to some of the film’s more hysterical moments. In the showiest role is Lee alum Delroy Lindo (Crooklyn; Malcolm X) as the MAGA hat wearing, Trump supporter Paul, who devolves into a monologue spouting Shakespearean fount of anguish by the film’s third act—the paradoxical character seems the one whose superficial exploration is the film’s greatest missed opportunity.

The others each get their moments, with Isiah Whitlock Jr. (previously in Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and The 25th Hour) bringing the levity, Clarke Peters (whose performance in Lee’s Red Hook Summer remains underrated) the logic and Broadway star Norm Lewis the voice of reason. But none of them can quite overcome the tragic folly of the script (and this includes its game French players Melanie Thierry and Jean Reno, not to mention a distracting Paul Walter Hauser), of which the term clunky is an understatement. The only prominent player who remains somewhat unscathed is Jonathan Majors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019).

Its subtexts would have been just as possible had this been as smartly and efficiently executed as Lee’s 2006 studio thriller Inside Man, but the juggling of too many tangents distracts rather than compels. Lee’s approximation suggests the nefarious intersection of racism and greed, and how these evils feed one another—if the nexus of Conrad’s text was whether or not it was a depiction of racism or championing it, we can posit Lee in conversation with Coppola (or/ and perhaps his representation of the prized status quo, a white American who did not address or could not address or was not interested in addressing the racial underpinnings which girded a bloody, violent conflict concocted by privileged white men). And yes, Spike Lee’s latest provocation does address it, converse with it and march defiantly against it (‘it’ being the reality of America as an inherently racist country built off the backs of many to glorify a few, while also treating its minority communities as expendable). But ‘it’ could have been stronger and more potent than the attention-razing knot of competing energies delivered here. Then again, maybe we need to return to the defiance of Achebe, who also wrote in Things Fall Apart, “If you don’t like my story, write your own.”

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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