Da 5 Bloods (2020)

Dir. Spike Lee. Starring Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Majors

I’m on top of things! Spoilers! Golly!

Watching this movie I got a feeling that reminded me of watching The Edge of Seventeen. In that movie, the teacher carts in a TV and the class starts watching Young Mr. Lincoln. It was at that moment that I desperately wished I were watching Young Mr. Lincoln and not The Edge of Seventeen. Movies are so easily referenced and replicated, perhaps as easily and frequently as in any other artistic medium short of music. So watching Da 5 Bloods, I was really starting to get into the whole Treasure of the Sierra Madre vibe that the movie had going on until there was a literal line reading which included, in this order, the words, “We don’t need no stinking badges.” That Da 5 Bloods pulls so liberally from Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not a problem in itself. Heck, when the “Ride of the Valkyries” started playing once the boys head upriver, I laughed out loud. Only Spike Lee has the balls (I tried to come up with a synonym, but “gumption” doesn’t really cut it) to put that in a Vietnam movie. It wasn’t until that moment with the badges business that I really wished I were watching Sierra Madre instead, and it wasn’t until Otis (Peters) lies on the ground and starts murmuring about “the horror” that I wished I were watching Apocalypse Now. It didn’t feel referential. Nor did it feel like that typical, brassy, in-your-face Spike Lee that I really do enjoy most of the time. It felt like fanservice. When that was happening, I felt like I was watching a comic book movie instead of a Spike Lee joint, and that stung.

What works in Da 5 Bloods works, and almost everything that works happens in the last ninety minutes. There is an awful lot of backstory and hangout vibing to do before we ever get to where these guys are going, and what bothers me so much about it is that virtually all of it is handled better later on in the movie. The flashbacks are fine, and entirely necessary to the plot, but they never feel like much more than that. There are some gunfights that the squad under Norman (Chadwick Boseman) get into, and in the larger context of ‘Nam gunfights they feel stale; one wonders if Lee’s best action sequences are the most intimate ones, rather than firefights like the one that takes place around the downed helicopter. Eddie (Norm Lewis) comes into Hanoi acting like he’s rich, and he seems to be the most good-natured of the bunch; the fact that he gets blown up by a landmine before most of the really serious dirt goes down was always going to make him feel a little half-baked in comparison to someone like Paul (Lindo) or Otis, but we hardly need to see that he’s a decent chap in a bar or in a hotel lobby to see it mean more when he’s in the field again. Mel (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) is not even as much of a rounded character as Eddie, although by virtue of the sheer amount of profanity he fires off he gets more laugh lines. The revelation that Otis left behind a lover and ultimately a daughter is a nice touch, I think, although the reveal of his by now grown daughter is slowplayed in the moment but probably should have been played out over more time instead. The only character who benefits from this first hour is Paul, whose PTSD comes to the fore in a toasty little sequence with a guy trying to sell him a chicken. The end result is, like a chicken left in the oven too long, overcooked, but that information turns out to be essential to the twist on the Sierra Madre plot that Lee has going. So too is the sudden appearance of Paul’s son, David (Majors), who has come to Vietnam to ensure that his dad, who does not appear to be all there, does not lose himself in the place where his nightmares come from. Majors is one of the bright spots of the movie, and it’s a sagacious play by Lee to include at least one younger person in this group searching for buried gold. David, who still has the virility to flirt with a do-gooder Frenchwoman, Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), and is not haunted by memories of “Stormin’ Norman” nor the Vietnam War nor the assassination of Martin Luther King, changes the flavor of the group. His presence not only fulfills the numerology that Lee loves so much between the late ’60s and the present, but it also ensures that these men do not sink into endless “remember when” without anyone to pull them up for air. David’s presence, and his push-pull-push harder relationship with his headstrong dad, keep emphasis on what will happen once the men find the gold.

It’s after the gold is being hefted in full packs by these old men (seriously, didn’t they watch Sierra Madre? Don’t they know they’re supposed to have burros?) that Delroy Lindo gets to work on the performance that the Internet is buzzing about. I would be more than happy to watch this outstanding actor finally get himself some hardware, but it’s also hard to deny that there’s something very Oscar about Lindo’s performance in general. There is an awful lot of murmuring to himself, and by the end of the movie the man is straight-up facing the camera and talking. There is a lot of shouting, and threatening, and although it is a good performance, his costume does an awful lot of work for him. For much of the first half of the movie, Paul wears a bandana over his head, but in the second half he makes the switch to a Make America Great Again hat, which punctuates every one of his gestures even when we can’t see the words on the cap. It’s another wonderful choice by Lee, who reveals pretty early that Paul is a Trump voter; the best thing that comes from that is Otis’ reaction, as Otis decides it must have been Paul he saw smiling and waving in the background of a Trump rally that one time. It’s also a choice that keeps Lindo’s character from ever being one where subtlety is a merited choice, and that’s an issue when it comes time for Paul to die and then appear from beyond the grave. The letter that makes its way to David is a very humane document indeed, but after everything Paul has said and done, it’s not quite a salve. It’s a consolation prize, and I think the movie hopes it will be a last confession instead. If I were to choose a performer I think is doing the best work of the movie, it is probably Clarke Peters; this should not come as a surprise, because for a while there he was doing the best work on The Wire, too. Otis is a much more lived-in character, the medic the story cannot do without, and I love the way Peters talks to people when they’ve been shot. He’s got this calm, steady quality in his voice, like he’s done this a thousand times, and he moves with a similar steadiness that implies he’s done this a thousand times more. The movie needs him as much as it needs Lindo, and I have a funny feeling no one’s going to clamor for Clarke Peters to get his Oscar. So it goes.

As much of a bummer as so much of this movie is, those scenes not long after the Sierra Madre turn are really outstanding. Eddie gets blown up by a mine, and we’ve seen enough people walking around haphazardly to know that someone was going to eat it based on one of those suckers. What is much more surprising happens, like, seconds after that: David steps on one too, only he realizes that he’s on one before he steps off. Frozen, forced to keep from shifting his weight at all, he calls for help. This is Lindo’s best scene in the movie by leaps and bounds, because we appreciate for the first time, maybe really the only time, why Paul is a good man to have in your corner. This was not always a man so devastated by his guilt about Norman; at one time, he must have been an absolute rock in a crisis. He comes up with a plan, leads it, executes it. Paul invokes the spirit of Edwin Moses for David, who, in Majors’ portrayal, appears to be trying to make himself as light as possible. (An aside: I actually like most of Spike Lee’s little captions to the movie, like the ones about Milton Olive or Edwin Moses. Lee can’t help himself any more than I can help myself when it comes to a parenthetical note, for one thing, but I think they give this movie context that makes it that much more accessible so long after the Vietnam War ended.)  David ties a rope around himself, and half a dozen people yank David off the mine as it explodes right behind him. It is a scary moment indeed, tense, drawn out. After a long embrace, Paul is no longer that calm, concentrated father: he orders his son to tie up the three people from the landmine defusing charity (including Hedy), doubling down on whether or not the guy he just pulled off a land mine would even be his son anymore if he doesn’t do what his tormented, uneven father asks. Danger begets danger for a while in Da 5 Bloods, and when it does it’s everything you hope for a movie like this to be. It’s just that for a long, long time, this movie doesn’t want to be dangerous at all. Like old men so often are, it’s just okay with being able to kick back and wait.

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