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"DA 5 BLOODS"
(2020) (Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Four African-American veterans return to Vietnam to retrieve the remains of their fallen commander as well as the bars of gold they hid there decades ago.
PLOT:

Paul (DELROY LINDO), Otis (CLARKE PETERS), Eddie (NORM LEWIS), and Melvin (ISIAH WHITLOCK JR.) all served together in Vietnam under the command of Stormin' Norman (CHADWICK BOSEMAN) and have now returned there decades after the war to retrieve Norman's remains. But that's half of what they tell their guide, Vinh (JOHNNY TRI NGUYEN), who will escort them from Ho Chi Minh City to but not into the jungles where they fought. The other thing they hope to find is a stash of gold bars they found in a plane wreck back during the war and buried for future removal.

To help get those out of the country, Otis visits his former lover, Tien (LE Y LAN) -- with whom he's only just learned they had a daughter, Michon (SANDY HUONG PHAM), together -- who arranges a meeting with French businessman Desroche (JEAN RENO) who informs them he'll liquidate the bars and put the money into untraceable accounts. Paul, who suffers the most of the group from PTSD, is wary of that arrangement, but he has bigger concerns when his estranged adult son, David (JONATHAN MAJORS), shows up unexpectedly, says he knows of the plan, and wants part of the cut.

Before they all head out, he meets young French do-gooder Hedy (MELANIE THIERRY) who -- along with her friends Simon (PAUL WALTER HAUSER) and Seppo (JASPER PAAKKONEN) -- are actively working to remove landmines and other unexploded bombs from the countryside and jungles. Little do they realize that their paths will all cross at a later point as the veterans and David make their way through what was once hostile territory in search of their long-dead commander and the gold they hid.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

Few filmmakers frustrate me more than Spike Lee. While some of his films can be brilliant and most touch upon important societal matters, he usually can't help but hammer home his message(s) due to any number of questionable directorial choices, overall preachiness and a heavy-handed approach that combined almost always take me out of whatever story he's trying to tell.

Much like many evangelical Christian films of the past that couldn't help but figuratively and literally preach to the choir, Lee seemingly simply can't resist the temptation to be the cinematic version of "Captain Obvious" in terms of what he's trying to impart upon his viewers.

The latest such example of that is "Da 5 Bloods," a tale of four African-American vets who return to the jungles of Vietnam decades after the war there, not only to bring home the remains of their commander who died in combat, but also millions of dollars of worth of gold bars they buried there for safekeeping until they could return.

That's a perfectly fine scenario that Lee penned with Kevin Willmutt and Danny Bilson & Paul Demeo and I had no problems with -- and actually appreciated -- the quickly edited montage setup that opens the film and depicts not only the horrors of that particular war, but also the racially charged treatment of African-Americans there and back home during the 1960s.

In fact, and considering the unfolding events in the U.S. regarding racism that's not only still around all of these decades earlier but seems to be growing in intensity over the past several years, that opening and the subject matter at hand couldn't be any more timely. It almost feels like a project born out of the recent police shootings, protests, and riots, but was obviously made before everything came to a head of recent.

Following that introduction, we meet our four main players of this message tale, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who arrive in the city they knew at the time called Saigon but is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. It's unclear if this is their first time together since their time "in country" long ago, but they're quick to reestablish their camaraderie that likely helped them survive the conflict, even after Paul admits that he voted for Donald Trump.

From a storytelling standpoint, that's fine and dandy, but Lee simply can't resist thrusting in a clip of the current president at a rally, pointing out a black man in the crowd behind him. That sudden inclusion does zip for the film other than to show that the filmmaker is up to his usual directorial tricks again.

His fans might like or at least not mind that -- and a bevy of similar pop-in edits scattered throughout the 150-some minute offering -- but I found it nothing more than a hammered home distraction. The same holds true for some "talk to the camera" moments and other bits of on the nose dialogue that indicate Lee either doesn't trust his audience to get the point or that he feels that subtly will diffuse his messaging about the black experience in America.

Between all of that, the rest of the story unfolds, with flashbacks showing the man whose remains they're looking for, Stormin' Norman (a captivating Chadwick Boseman) while the current story has a local Vietnamese man, Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), serving as their guide to -- but not into -- the jungle.

But before that, Otis meets up with his former flame from way back when, Tien (Le Y Lan), who arranges a meeting with French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno) who can turn their retrieved gold bars into untraceable offshore bank accounts. Complicating matters is the arrival of Paul's adult son, David (Jonathan Majors), whose estrangement with his old man serves as one of many complications and is explained in detail later on.

The introduction of three "rid the world of landmines" do-gooders -- Hedy (Melanie Thierry), Simon (Paul Walter Hauser), and Seppo (Jasper Paakkonen) -- is a set-up for a development that Lee telegraphs so much it can be seen from all of the way back in the States.

Despite the preaching, heavy-handedness, and visual/editing distractions, there are undeniably powerful and moving moments in the film and Boseman is so charismatic a performer I was captivated every moment he's in the film (including an imagined but nonetheless touching moment of reconciliation and forgiveness). And Lee certainly isn't wrong about the racial issues that are in play and prove that not much ground has been made in terms of addressing them in America.

I just wish as a filmmaker and storyteller Lee would drop the sledgehammer and allow the keyboard (sans the preachy dialogue), camera, and performances to get the point across in a more subtle fashion. Good but saddled with frustrating directorial issues, "Da 5 Bloods" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed June 11, 2020 / Posted June 12, 2020


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