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Non-Review Review: Da 5 Bloods

Da 5 Bloods argues that the wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War never truly healed.

The basic plot of Da 5 Plots is standard war movie stuff, recalling the set up of the classic Simpsons episode Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in “The Curse of the Flying Hellfish”, which itself drew upon a variety of inspirations including episodes of M*A*S*H and Barney Miller. The film follows four veterans who return to Vietnam ostensibly to repatriate the remains of their lost squad commander “Stormin’ Norman.” However, it quickly becomes clear that these former soldiers also have their eyes on a more lucrative prize.

The past never stays buried.

Co-writer and director Spike Lee uses the familiar trappings of war movies – and specifically of Vietnam War movies – to interrogate the legacy of the conflicts and the scars that it left on the national psyche. Indeed, one of the most interesting structural choices in Da 5 Bloods is to effectively invert the basic structure of BlacKkKlansman, which opened as a pointed genre tribute before seguing into actual contemporary news footage during its final act. Da 5 Bloods starts by offering a glimpse of the chaos of the early seventies before diving into the story that it wants to tell.

The result is to contextualise both Da 5 Bloods and its statement on contemporary American identity, drawing a strong line from the unrest and horror of the Vietnam era to the madness of the present moment. Da 5 Bloods was obviously written and filmed well before the latest crisis in the United States, but Lee is a shrewd filmmaker with his finger on the pulse. Da 5 Bloods feels like a movie that is both about the nightmare of this particular moment and the tragic inevitability of that moment as the outcome of unprocessed trauma that has been festering for decades.

Normcore.

Lee is one of the most cinematically literate directors working in contemporary film production. He understands the medium and its history. More than that, he understands how audiences approach films, the frame of reference that viewers bring to the cinema with them. BlacKkKlansman remains one of the most incisive commentaries on contemporary America, but that insight is filtered through the lens of cinematic history in a way that folds in everything from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song through to Gone With the Wind and Birth of a Nation.

Da 5 Bloods draws heavily and explicitly from the cinema of the Vietnam War. Ride of the Valkyries plays over the group’s expedition to the heart of the country, evoking Apocalypse Now. Lee makes a point to include several obvious needle drops pilfered from almost half-a-century of Vietnam films. A sequence around the middle of the film finds a small bar playing Time Has Come Today, drawn from a variety of Vietnam-adjacent projects like Casualties of War, Vietnam in HD and even Kong: Skull Island.

In country.

Some of the flashback footage looks almost like it has been lifted from a documentary of the conflict, as grain flickers across the screen and Lee positions the camera so as to suggest an intimacy. As Norman talks to his soldiers about the war and about the world, it plays almost like a companion piece to the news footage that opened the film, as if reminding the audience that so much of what America knows or thinks it knows about Vietnam has been filtered through one screen or another.

However, Da 5 Bloods doesn’t simply quote the history of Vietnam on film. It also actively engages with that history. Wandering through Ho Chi Minh City, the characters lament the way in which Hollywood has manipulated and warped the memory of the conflict in the collective consciousness. “All those Hollyweird motherf%!kers trying to go back and win the Vietnam War,” Eddie complains, and he’s not wrong. The characters namecheck the eighties cinema of Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, but they might as well fold in the entire eighties action genre.

Going against the grain.

At a nightclub, the characters dance the night away as a DJ plays against a backdrop displaying the poster for Apocalypse Now. (He plays just behind a giant neon advertisement for “Budweiser.”) There’s a sense in which these films do not necessarily reveal the truth of how things really were, but instead offer a substitute alternate reality for how they might otherwise be remembered. Lee shrewdly understands this, with Da 5 Bloods even borrowing a key structural conceit from Apocalypse Now, with the characters taking an up-river journey that leads them into their own past.

However, the past and the present are not really clearly delineated in Da 5 Bloods. At various points in the film, Lee switches to grainy footage, which is often visual shorthand for memory of flashback. Indeed, it’s often used in flashes back to the unit’s history with their lost commander. However, it is also used during the boat journey, revealed as a filter that Melvin is using on his camcorder. At certain points, the film offers black-and-white snapshots of life in Vietnam that look like they might date from the seventies, but are taken by Eddie in the present.

There’s a Stormin’ coming.

Even when Da 5 Bloods does slip back in time, there’s an artifice to it. Stormin’ Norman is played by Chadwick Boseman. He is preserved in time, as if a snapshot were taken at the moment of his death. However, Lee declines to deage the veterans around him. He does not recast the roles, and he does not use the deaging technology that Martin Scorsese brought to bear on The Irishman. Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. all play the younger versions of their characters with minimal effort to disguise their advancing age.

Da 5 Bloods understands that there is no escaping into the past. Even memories come with all the baggage of the present. It’s telling that the member of the unit who has the hardest time letting go of the past is Paul. Paul has refused to acknowledge what happened in Vietnam. He is haunted by nightmares of his time in country. He did three tours, but refused any counseling or support after returning home. He drove his family away.

A-Paul-ing misconduct.

Paul is unable to move on. He wallows in nostalgia. He refuses to engage with the Vietnamese around him, even though the conflict has been over for decades. When he encounters a French fence who goes by the name Desroche, Paul struggles to hide his contempt. “Let it go,” Otis urges. “This motherf%$ker can’t tell me shit,” Paul protests, before launching into a bitter tirade of cliché accusations against the Frenchman. “I thank you for this ignorant, American, one-sided version of World War II,” Desroche responds. “Uncle Sam did no better than France in Vietnam.”

Paul’s inability to let go of the past manifests in a variety of unsettling ways. He is a proud Trump voter, and wears his bright red baseball cap throughout his trip. As the group pushes further and further in land, Paul struggles to accept that the conflict is over and slips deeper and deeper into a combat mentality. Da 5 Bloods is sympathetic to Paul’s trauma. At one point, wandering alone through the jungle, he seems to accuse the camera directly. “You made me malignant,” he warns. “You will not kill Paul.” When a snake bites him, there is already venom in his veins.

Reno escape.

Of course, Da 5 Bloods understands why Paul might feel the way that he does. Indeed, for all the harm Paul causes, the film never truly hates him. Early on their journey, the group encounters an international aid organisation that is working to disarm the mines that Americans left behind. “It’s strange how wars never end,” reflects the leader of the group. Da 5 Bloods suggests that the end of a war is a luxury reserved for the victors, and those victors are not always neatly delineated by geographical boundaries.

Eddie marvels at how eagerly Ho Chi Minh City has embraced American capitalism. “They didn’t need us,” Eddie gasps. “We should have just sent Mickey D’s, Pizza Hut and the Colonel and we would have defeated the VC in one week.” Two veterans of “the American War” buy drinks for the visiting soldiers. “They are former Viet Cong and want to welcome you back to the country,” explains the group’s guide, Vinh Tran. In contrast, it’s the losers and disadvantaged who find themselves trapped reliving the conflict over and over.

Feels like going home.

It’s notable that the characters who end up still fighting the Vietnamese War in Da 5 Bloods are veterans of French and American campaigns. The African American soldiers at the core of the story understand that they will always be losers in this conflict. The four returning soldiers are not just hoping to recover the remains of an old friend and commanding officer. They are also looking for a crate full of gold that they buried on a hillside during the conflict, a lost payroll that ferried on a crashed jet.

“We been dyin’ for the country from the very beginning,” Norman tells his fellow soldiers. Norman proposes to “repossess this gold for every boot that doesn’t make it home.” Indeed, Da 5 Bloods is appropriately cynical about the whole enterprise. In the film’s assessment, the real point of the war was not an ideological conflict against communism so much as a simple expression of capitalism – that striking juxtaposition of the Apocalypse Now poster behind the giant Budweiser branding, the multinationals whose invasion was more successful than that of the armed forces.

What have they been roped into?

Indeed, one of the darker questions broached by Da 5 Bloods is what America actually succeeded in exporting to Vietnam, despite the seemingly lofty justifications and rationalisations for foreign intervention. Early in the film, Otic reunites with an old lover from the conflict, only to discover that modern Vietnam has embraced its own version of American racism. After Tiên Luu mentions the n-word, she explains, “The white G.I. taught us that word.” There’s a profound melancholy that runs through Da 5 Bloods. What little the Vietnam War accomplished for America is horrific.

Da 5 Bloods returns to the core themes of BlacKkKlansman, the question of self-interest versus communal obligation. In both BlacKkKlansman and Da 5 Bloods, Lee proves himself a strong advocate of allyship; it’s notable that BlacKkKlansman closed with a title card in tribute to Heather Heyer, the white woman who was killed in a terrorist attack in Charlottesville, and that one of its key points of focus was the gradual awakening of Jewish Detective Philip “Flip” Zimmerman to the plight of the African American community.

Plane and simple.

Da 5 Bloods returns time and time again to this question of what an individual owes to something greater than themselves, and where strength lies in these sorts of debates. “That gold should go to our people,” Eddie argues of the recovered gold. “What you trying to say?” Paul responds. “That gold should go towards black liberation,” Eddie replies. Paul rolls his eyes at the notion. “Our liberation. You do for self.”

Repeatedly over the course of the film, the characters assert that “five bloods don’t die, they multiply.” While this initially seems like a celebration of their virility, it gradual comes to take on a more inspiring and substantive meaning. Over the course of the film, the eponymous group expands and evolves, encompassing a strange collection of misfits who are drawn together under surprising and occasionally antagonistic circumstances. However, like BlacKkKlansman before it, Da 5 Bloods argues that nobody gets anywhere alone.

Grave misgivings.

Da 5 Bloods is powered by an endearing empathy, even amid the carnage and chaos that defines and shapes its story (and its characters). During one flashback, the eponymous unit stumbles across a squad of Viet Cong in the jungle, talking among themselves. One young soldier gossips about the poem his girlfriend left for him, bundled in a scarf, as his colleagues gently mock him. The fire fight that follows is quick and decisive. Our heroes will never know anything of that small personal anecdote, but Lee shares it with the audience.

Da 5 Bloods isn’t quite as compelling or as dynamic as BlacKkKlansman. Its runtime is a little too long, and its plot is a little too conventional. However, Lee is working with a strong cast that helps bring forth the humanism in this foreign adventure. Still, it’s hard to resist the movie’s charm. Clarke Peters is a compelling as Otis, playing the group’s medic and their heart. Isiah Whitlock Jr. is a delight as Melvin, the group’s id. Delroy Lindo does wonderful work as Paul, painting the character as alternately terrifying and tragic as the movie demands.

Radio Freedom.

It’s tempting to describe Da 5 Bloods as an incredibly timely film, but that would be disingenuous. Da 5 Bloods understands that the wounds that shape and define modern American culture extend long into the past, and that they’ve been able to heal as they should. The past and the present are not as easily disentangled as one might hope, but instead coexist in ways both straightforward and complex. Da 5 Bloods is a story about four old soldiers returning to Vietnam, but it also wonders whether they ever really left.

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