TL;DR – A powerful film that hurt to watch at times, but I am glad that I did.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is a post-credit moment
There have been a lot of films set during the Vietnam War or explores its aftermath. It is not a noble war like WW2 in people’s minds, it was bloody, unnecessary, and it left shockwaves throughout American society, that we are still living through today. How do you capture a war like that, well some have done it through sceptical, some have done it through horror, and there was that one time was a flying elephant. Today I look at a film that has all of that, okay not the elephant part, while hitting the realities and legacy of the Vietnam War.
So to set the scene, we open in on a montage of Black America and their experiences in war, specifically Vietnam War or the American War as it is known in Vietnam. This is where we get a crash course on the War from start to finish through a lens we don’t always see. We jump to today in Ho Chi Minh City today where four old friends come together again in a country they once fought in, a place full of memories but also somewhere that has gone through a lot of changes. Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) & Eddie (Norm Lewis) have come back to Vietnam for one reason, to find the body of one of their fallen comrades Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). However, there may also be a whole lot of gold from the war on the line as well.
From a production point of view, this film is doing a lot of exciting things. This is a film that jumps between different time frames, going from today to back to the War. Of course, this is not the first film to do that, but they go out of their way to highlight that jump. On the surface level, you can immediately tell when it shifts as the aspect ratio changes from the widescreen to that TV ratio that you would expect from the 1980s. It is not just the ratio, the colour saturation, even the style and way the sections are shot feels like a blast from the past. It is also a way of showing people’s state of mind as they slip back to the past. This is combined with the way the film uses depth throughout to draw you into everything in the frame. Which is, of course, helped by the beautiful scenery of Vietnam on show in every moment. When this is combined with the use of music from Marvin Gaye brings you audibly into the world without hitting all of the same songs you usually hear. Though the Ride of the Valkyries is used to reconceptualise this film from other films even though it makes many references to Apocalypse Now and Rambo.
One of the interesting choices the film makes is that use the same actors in both periods, which could be a comment on those who died never got a chance to grow up, or just a way to get us to connect with our core four quicker, or indeed something else entirely. No matter the reason, it is instrumental in bringing that hard reality of what is going through the characters’ heads onto the screen. The film also does not waste a teaching moment, when a name or reference is brought up, they will cut to a photo and give it the context it needs. I should say it does not use the censored, nor does it give you the luxury of being in black and white, it instead shows the awfulness in its full colour. All of this builds upon the story giving it the layers it needs.
Da 5 Bloods is a film that goes out of its way to both humanise people while exploring the dehumanising nature of war. For a movie that revolves around the Vietnamese/American War, it goes out of its way to validate the perspectives of everyone. In so many films set in this era, you will have Vietnamese troops walking along talking, but here the film takes the time to subtitle what they are saying, bringing them into focus rather than othering them as you would typically do. It also focuses on the real impact of war, how it affects people, the legacy it leaves. This emphasis on the past leads to some uncomfortable moments in the film as those experiences clash together. It is raw and painful, and it does not mess around.
The story is a roller coaster of pain and shock, but to discuss it, we will touch on a couple of things that could be [SPOILERS] so please be cautious in the next sections if you have not watched the film yet. On the surface, Da 5 Bloods is a film about righting a wrong and bringing closure for everyone and their experiences in the War. There is the closure of finding’s Norman’s body, the official reason that they are all there, and then there is the unofficial reason of getting that gold back, CIA gold. These dual focuses create complications right from the start because everyone is hiding something. Those complications are then amplified because everyone is bringing their damage with them.
At the core of Da 5 Bloods is Paul, who shifts from being one of the group to taking it over, to being on the outside and back, all while trying to process his pain. You see this most clearly with the complicated relationship he has with his son David (Jonathan Majors) who comes along with him because he is concerned about his father. This relationship is at the core of the dysfunction and catharsis of the film, and it is an emotional punch to the gut throughout the film. It is also how the film can use tension, to its highest effect. From the moment someone mentions landmines, every step becomes a moment in fear welling up with every ping of the metal detector. That tension would not work, unless you believe in the group, the Bloods, and you do because of the conviction of the actors and the writing that brings them to life.
In the end, do we recommend Da 5 Bloods? Yes, yes, we do. It is a hard film to watch at times, both with the story and with the associated imagery. I’ve seen the image of the general being killed on the street but never the video, and that is going to impact my soul for a while. However, it is that rawness that brings you in and makes every moment hit harder. Also, this is a good reminder that landmines are an abomination and should never be used. We should be moving closer to our obligations under the Ottawa Treaty not further away. If you liked Da 5 Bloods, I would also recommend BlacKkKlansman.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Da 5 Bloods
Directed by – Spike Lee
Written by – Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Spike Lee & Kevin Willmott
Music by – Terence Blanchard
Cinematography by – Newton Thomas Sigel
Edited by – Adam Gough
Production/Distribution Companies – 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Rahway Road, Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production & Netflix
Starring – Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Van Veronica Ngo, Johnny Trí Nguyễn, Lê Y Lan, Nguyễn Ngọc Lâm & Sandy Hương Phạm
Rating – Australia: MA15+;