‘Da 5 Bloods’ Movie Review: Spike Lee’s Treasure of the Apocalypse Now
Any new Spike Lee movie is exciting because they’re always unpredictable. Not every ambitious idea works. Every once in a while you end up with a She Hate Me, but you never know when a BlacKkKlansman is right around the corner. Da 5 Bloods is neither extreme, but it is an exciting debut for the filmmaker as one of Netflix’s acclaimed A-list directors. And it’s way better than Martin Scorsese’s Netflix movie, The Irishman.
‘Da 5 Bloods’ go back to Vietnam
Vietnam Veterans Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) return to Vietnam in present day. They want to find the body of their fifth Blood, Norman (Chadwick Boseman) and the military gold they stashed during their tour. They lost track of it when the area was napalmed, but recent mudslides uncovered one of their landmarks.
The Treasure of Sierra Madre showed how the very objective of the mission complicates the return trip. That was three men, and this is four plus Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors). Add to that the black experience and Vietnam of yesterday and today and Da 5 Bloods has added many more flammable chemicals to the powderkeg.
‘Da 5 Bloods’ is no treasure hunt
Just being back in Vietnam brings some old issues back to the surface. Otis gets to visit the woman who bore his daughter after he left. An encounter with a street vendor reopens old wounds for Paul. They also see the Vietnamese people are still suffering decades after the occupation. Lee plays “Flight of the Valkyries” early in the film, as if he’s reclaiming the composition from Apocalypse Now. It’s not over a helicopter attack though.
They find the gold in a rather uncerimonious, anticlimactic way. That’s probably the point. Finding the gold is the least of their struggles, although it would have been nice if it were somewhat of a challenge. Lugging gold bars through the jungle is harder, but the jungle is full of other dangers for five old veterans. The audience may anticipate those dangers before the characters do, but there are still effective sequences where Lee builds the tension.
Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the biggest challenge is each other, compounded when other interested parties cross their path and the five Bloods disagree with how to deal with them. Some encounters are more believable than others, but even the outlandish ones are provocative. The violence is super graphic, when it comes, really shoving it in your face.
The Spike Lee style
If the description sounds like a typical war heist like Three Kings or Triple Frontier, rest assured Da 5 Bloods is still a Spike Lee movie. You’ll recognize Lee’s style, but he applies it to this specific context the way he makes every movie unique, yet of his body of work.
Lee bookends Da 5 Bloods with real life footage of the Vietnam War, protests, events like the Kent State shooting, historical figures’ speeches and other context. He frames this story with real events, showing that black soldiers fought in several U.S. wars. They were promised freedom that the U.S. never quite delivered.
Even during the narrative, Lee will cut to a still photograph in the middle of a scene. Or a historic portrait. Or a Donald Trump rally, with Lee’s own graphics added. Lee doesn’t hide how he feels. He only does one of his trademark dolly shots and saves it for the end, but it’s still there.
‘Da 5 Bloods’ on your screen three ways
Lee also plays with how you’re going to see Da 5 Bloods on your TV. He shot the film in three different aspect ratios. The Vietnam War flashbacks are a 4:3 square in the center of your screen, like old television sets. The present day scenes begin as widescreen, clear digital cinematography with bars on the top and bottom to simulate a movie screen. Once the Bloods go hunting for the gold, it fills the whole 16 x 9 screen.
It is an effective technique that creates different feelings, different levels of comfort or discomfort, in concert with the performances on screen. You also always know when you are in the story thanks to the dimensions of the picture.
Da 5 Bloods may get bogged down in some character tangents and some far fetched plot points even by the standards of an outrageous story. Lee just plows through them regardless and that’s part of his power. He’s balancing messages, feelings and story, and will emphasize one over the others at any given point. It works because he means it each time.