Part-Time Review: Da 5 Bloods


I recently had a few friends message me and ask me my thoughts on Spike Lee's new Netflix film Da 5 Bloods. I've been busy with other film hobbies so I haven't been able to watch it until recently. As I began to write out my response, I thought I might as well share them here as well. I don't really have a magisterial take on the story, but kinda like the film itself, my thoughts go to a lot of different places. I think the best and easiest way to share them will be in bullet point form rather than trying to develop some kind of "take" on it.
  • The film is a lot like a Vegas buffet of film genres, stories, techniques, tones, and messages; there's a little re’s a bit of everything here. Sometimes that can work in a movie, but I don't think it works well (or at all) in this case. Look over the various techniques, stories, messages, and uses of music in this film I've briefly outlined below. There is nothing inherently wrong with a film that focuses on one technique or message over what Lee has done, but it has to work in the end. My contention is that due to the buffet approach, the film is never able to find a logical or emotional coherence for the viewer and "comes off" more like someone just throwing whatever they want to at the wall and hoping it sticks (even if that's not the intention).
    • Some of the various techniques/tropes all going on in this film: historical flashbacks, educational graphic cards, direct editorial footage, searching for gold, shootouts, double crosses, long monologues, long group arguments, snake attacks(!), talking to ghosts/visions, escaping a minefield, and breaking the fourth wall.
    • Some of the stories/messages going on in this film: how blacks were used in the military, the ethics of the Vietnam War, the similarities in experience between blacks and the Vietnamese, black experience in the current political environment, PTSD, honoring an old friend, trying to redeem our exploitative past, a father son story, debate on reparations, Trump, debate on nonviolent protests, friendship story, honoring a fallen comrade, getting rid of a guilty conscience.
    • Some of the soundtrack/music use in this film: The usual Vietnam/Soul radio hits (one done acapella), characters singing a variety of songs, normal contemporary score, and a more old-school and sentimental schmaltz playing during the flashbacks. 
  • In a message, a friend of mine said they thought it was a movie written around a political rant. While I certainly feel that critique, I think it might be more accurate to say that it's a movie filmed around multiple political, social, and racial commentaries/points all fighting for air and development throughout the story. At times the story takes over and at times the rants take over. This is where I think the country buffet approach works against the film - there's so many themes and messages all fighting for time and air that none of them really come through with clarity and depth to me. Thus, I think the commentary is harder to understand and empathize/engage with. In one beat we are exploring the similarities of how both blacks and Vietnamese were used and exploited and feel deserving of reparations and the next minute we get a cheesy and on the nose (as in they directly quote it) reference to The Treasure of Sierra Madre ("We don't need no stinkin' badges"). 
  • Just because I think the film is heavy-handed, convoluted, and too editorially tendentious to really work as a unified story, doesn’t mean I don’t think films like this shouldn’t get made or I’m not glad I gave it a chance. Art, storytelling, and commentary are worth taking risks, and Spike Lee takes a lot of them. I love Lee's Malcolm X and believe the risky artistic choice he made in the final few minutes of it nearly ruin it. However, I'm glad he included it because that's what he wanted to say. We have enough cookie cutter "stories" out there - I'm all for giving different takes on story a try, whether I think they work or not. That's one of the great parts of art, you just never know when that vision will grab you, connect with you, and move you unlike ever before. It didn't do it for me here. I'm free to say it, I'm free to critique it, others are free to love it or not as well. I hope Spike makes more films.
  • I have no idea if this is true or not, but just judging by the country buffet final product (and this is pure speculation) it looks to me like the film started out primarily as a Vietnam War / Treasure of Sierra Madre story and Lee took it and wanted to turn it into an epic film (it's 2.5 hrs long!) loaded with purposely tendentious commentary on racial history and politics. It feels like the film constantly goes back and forth between those two poles. It feels (again, I’m just speculating here) like Netflix won this film because they might have been the only ones willing to throw a budget at the less conventional approach Spike so clearly wanted. My speculation is that in order to make an artsy/political 2.5 hour epic out of a Vietnam/Treasure of Sierra Madre story, Spike had to accept Netflix's lowball offer. In contrast, a film like 2018's BlacKkKlansmen was more traditionally told and showed signs of a larger budget (again speculation).
  • I say they threw a budget at the film, but it clearly wasn’t much – there are signs everywhere in this film that they shot this on a shoestring. There’s a lot of sitting around and talking. It looks like a television series, not a film, and the action/set decoration shows it. 
  • My favorite sequence in the entire film is one of the quiet ones as the men leave a Vietnamese bar and just walk together surrounded by a modern capitalistic Vietnam. The long take of them talking and enjoying their company together was a beautiful little moment. 
  • The use of the older actors during the flashbacks is an odd creative (financial?) choice. On one hand it allows us to easily place them in the flashbacks, but on the other, it doesn’t allow us to see them as humans who have progressed over a few decades of life. I would have liked to have learned how their lives had grown and changed them as men in the last few decades of choices. Often it feels like the film has them stay the same people from their time in 'Nam until their return.
  • The way the film treats Chadwick Boseman’s “Norman” is a little flat to me, I wish there was more to it. Norman can do no wrong in their eyes and is an "always right" character that at times comes off more like a cult leader holding sway than a real human being. Not sure that's what they were going for, but it's hard to know given the approach the film took.
  • Delroy Lindo is giving it his all and boy does his give it everything. At times he is engaging and moving and other times, he’s a caricature that's hard to take seriously. He can be over the top and excessive in one scene and then back to normal in the next. Like the style of storytelling, Delroy Lindo bounces all over the spectrum.

Overall Grade: C-