30 Movies in 30 Days: Da 5 Bloods

Had I seen it before: No.

Year: 2020

Director:  Spike Lee

Writers: Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee,

Where you can stream it now: Netflix

What IMDb says: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.

Why I picked it: It was Juneteenth, so I felt it important to focus on a black creator, so I started looking through IMDb profiles for some. For some reason I hadn’t realized that Spike Lee JUST put out a new Netflix Film a week ago. Perhaps the Netflix algorithm determined I wouldn’t be interested in it.

What I liked: I absolutely love the decision to set this in modern day Vietnam. I like to think it’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that the Vietnam War affected black men on a far greater scale compared to white men and it’s about time more of our Vietnam War movies reflect that. But so many people would’ve just made a run of the mill war movie with black characters (which could still be great, don’t get me wrong). Da 5 Bloods isn’t about to do something that predictable. Hell, its unpredictability is one of its greatest strengths. Instead, we get four veterans traveling to Vietnam in the present day, allowing for infinitely more levels of social commentary.

I’m actually kind of ashamed to admit that I had never really thought about what present day Vietnam looks like and how the lives of its people have been forever changed by the war. In the United States, the country Vietnam is so intrinsically linked to the war that it’s almost frozen in time for me. I don’t just think “a country in Asia” when I hear Vietnam, I think “that place where we sent a bunch of barely legal men to go fight and die for reasons that don’t make sense.” It’s the same way how someone you haven’t seen since middle school is eternally a middle schooler in your brain, and suddenly hearing their married with 2 kids feels surreal. It was interesting to see our four leads interact with Vietnamese natives and hear some of their perspectives on the war. And more importantly, it made me aware of biases I didn’t even realize I had.

I also need to take a moment to say that while the cast of this movie is fantastic across the board, Delroy Lindo is a force to be reckoned with. I haven’t been on top of newly released movies this year because theaters have been closed, but DAMN I really hope the people in awards circles still remember Delroy Lindo at the end of the year. He knows how to be sympathetic without always being likable. He knows how to be strong and forceful while still being vulnerable. He has arguably the most complex character of the bunch, and he nails it. Even if you don’t think this kind of movie is “your type of movie,” it’s still worth a the 2 hours and 34 minutes just to see him in action.

I also want to say that while the story too a little longer than expected to fall into its groove, once it got there I was on the edge of my seat until the end. There’s so many twists and turns and somehow Da 5 Bloods still finds a way to feel like a war movie without being a war movie, at least in the traditional sense. I love watching movies where I feel like anything can happen at any time, and this certainly got there. Yet somehow, a lot of the places where we eventually end up feel inevitable. As the film becomes a wilder and wilder ride, it never feels like it’s making a sharp left turn just for the sake of a sharp left turn. Instead it’s cashing in on exposition from earlier scenes and bring everything full circle. It’s such a tricky balance to hit, and in my mind that’s the hallmark of fabulous writing. (It’s also something I whined about a LOT in my review of Center Stage a few days ago so it was refreshing to see a movie succeed in this regard with flying colors.)

What I didn’t like: The movie takes a little while to become what it’s trying to become. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the first hour was boring or uninteresting, but it definitely set me up to expect a movie other than the one I eventually got. The beginning almost felt like we would see a fun, touristy adventure, something along the lines of Last Vegas or Going In Style. And yeah, occasionally it would sneak in little tidbits about the history of the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement the way a retired schoolteacher might. I don’t want to give away the back half of the movie because I think the shifts in tone are deliberate choices meant to surprise you, but let’s just say… you don’t get Last Vegas or Going In Style.

I wouldn’t say I was really, truly captivated by the narrative or any of the characters until around halfway through. Sure, the movie told me what the mission at hand was. And yeah, these four protagonists seemed pretty easy to root for. But I just wasn’t invested, and it’s not until later that you get real, concrete stakes if they fail at their mission. I think this is important to bring up because it IS a Netflix movie, and I could see a lot of people watching the first half hour and thinking “hmm, not for me.” Please don’t do that. Watch the whole thing, and I don’t think you’ll regret it.

Will I watch it again: I hope to. I have a hunch this is the type of movie that you pretty much have to watch twice to really “get it.” Now that I know where these different characters end up, I think I’ll be able to appreciate the earlier scenes that much more.

Who would enjoy it: I think this is an especially good pick for people who love historical films. However, its explorations of how history shapes life today means it shouldn’t be limited to those tastes. If you enjoy adventure paired with social justice commentary, this is a must see.

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