No doubt, Spike Lee will be boldly weighing in on the inflamed period we’re presently in, as COVID-19 and BLM loom large, keeping us on edge and in and out of lockdown. For now, though, his striking and inventive new film, Da 5 Bloods (available now on Netflix) touches many collective raw nerves in the current day zeitgeist — including the telling use of a MAGA hat — while wrestling with historic demons. Specifically, the milieu cross-stitches events with five black soldiers during the Vietnam war and a present-day return to the scene, in search of a buried gold stash.
As he did with his masterful 2018 film, BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods is spiced with historic cross-references to fateful events in black history (Muhammad Ali’s opening anti-Vietnam war statement, Malcolm X, the words and death of MLK) and a cinema-centric wokeness. From the latter angle, the film makes unabashed nods to Apocalypse Now — including the use of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” over a riverboat scene made ominous by association with Coppola’s war film fever dream. It’s also impossible to ignore shades of the ecstasy-meets-treachery of John Huston’s classic Treasure of Sierra Madre: note the line, revisited, “we don’t need stinkin’ official badges.”
Deceptive calm marks the opening of Lee’s film, with a convivial meeting of four cocktail-nursing veterans in the comforts of a Ho Chi Minh City hotel. We get hints of the varied personalities among the protagonists, particularly the time-bomb presence of Paul (played by a show-stealing Delroy Lindo), a volatile PTSD-afflicted character whose son appears later, representing the next generation.
The new tourist-friendly Vietnam of the film’s opening scenes seems a world away from the chaos of wartime, but as in Apocalypse Now, grimmer fates await once our protagonists leave the city and head into the jungle. Deeper into the film, the dynamics grow increasingly tense and flashbacks of violence and gunplay enter the picture. Ravages and residue of wartime, in some respects, never sleep. Landmines become both an allegorical touchstone and a literal threat as they delve into the jungle and follow the lead of a metal detector, exulting in gold findings, but risking sudden death.
Bursts of action cinema-like excess can distract from the deeper resonances of the film, but Lee isn’t one to let us forget the social and racial ramifications of his message. He also maintains his sharp sensibilities of the sight-and-sound aspects of what makes good cinema cinematic. For example, liberal use of Marvin Gaye’s music — timeless while also period-specific — ideally suits the filmic cause, making Gaye, a spiritualized truth-teller of the troubled ’70s, the veritable Greek chorus role in the mix.
Da 5 Bloods is, ultimately, as much about what’s goin’ on in the here and now, as an exploration of ghosts, revisited, and re-animated.
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