My Rating: ***
Sometimes I wonder if a film had been made twenty/twenty-five years ago would it get the same reaction as it does now? Are we so used to such uninspired works from other filmmakers and so familiar with much of the subject matter, that by making something different it immediately makes it good? And finally, would the director, more prolific now than ever, be praised or criticised for the work? These are all the things I am asking myself after watching Spike Lee's latest Joint, Da 5 Bloods.
'...the war and the Civil Rights Movement have left their scars on these men.'
We open on archive; footage from the Civil Rights Movement, photos from the war. We are established with the horrors and the fight in both these historical events which coincided with one another. Then we are in the present day, four veterans meet in Vietnam for the first time in years on a mission. To retrieve the gold they found and hid years ago and to return the body of their dead comrade, Norman, known fondly throughout as ‘Stormin' Norman’ and of whom they also buried at the same time. A deal struck with a Frenchman means they are granted passage to the jungle where they set off on their own. Things don't go according to plan. Meanwhile the individuals are dealing with their own problems; from PTSD, to poverty, to heartache, the war and the Civil Rights Movement have left their scars on these men.
It's all very interesting. But the film then becomes a lot of things and none of those things feels executed in its own right. We have War film, mixed with an Adventure and a fight for gold - a free for all. On top of all that are strange comedic moments that I am yet to determine were actually meant to be funny. It's trying to deal with trauma, of old men stuck in the past (shown though flashback sequences in which the actors play their young selves but as old men). It's trying to teach us about the injustices for the black community and the Vietnamese, to humanise them. Tonally, the film was off. It's also experimental as well as, with a lot of Lee's work, a reactionary piece.
'That's why Lee used it, to provoke a reaction.'
However, I learnt a fair bit in this movie. I'm very into my history with a great interest in a lot of time periods across the world. In American history, the Vietnam War has always been of great interest and I have seen a lot of anti-war movies in the past so feel I have a good understand of the circumstances and background of the event. But I came away learning more, something I always like from a film. I learnt that the first black soldier, Milton Lee Olive III, to receive a medal of honour gave his own life, at eighteen years old, by jumping on a grenade. I saw new photos and footage of Vietnam and the Movement that I had not seen before along with the familiar unsettling imagery that, without fail, will always strike some reaction in our hearts. That's why Lee used it, to provoke a reaction. But these things were cut in throughout as well as book-ending the piece, flashing on the screen as characters described events, people and places. It was garish, brash and took you out of the story. They even did this with the photo of Norman, more than once, a photo of his actor Chadwick Boseman. Once again, Lee may have intended this too. It doesn't mean it works.
This is a new perspective on an often told story and I wish it had been that, a period piece maybe or something of that kind exploring the racial disparities, the tensions at home and at war during Vietnam. The struggles of Black GI's both in Vietnam and its jungle would have been a compelling view of the story of the war, a side we rarely see when so much brutality at the hands of the Americans against the Vietnamese has taken centre stage. If anything, this film has reinforced the notion that this war for all involved contained far too many unjust complexities that it's startling that it continued for as long as it did. Although the future scenes hold some significant reflections on how the War stays with these men and the horrors that has inflicted in their own lives in the following years, it doesn't mean it's telling the story it should be telling.
We have some beautifully shot sequences with homages that are both subtle and not so, to classic movies of old such as Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (Huston, 1948). The past sequences change aspect ratio, shot and edited to mimic the time of the old footage that was captured during the war, but with better lighting. These were jarred by swirling, swivelling sweeping of the camera around the battle ground. Different from the hand-held approach most War films have mimicked since Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), and too dramatic here. there is some interesting shots caught on 'hand-held' home video camera also, although this motif is dropped quiet early on. Even the future scenes capture some beautiful views but feel too Netflix, too smooth, too digital to feel organic in the way that I wanted to experience from something shot in one of the rawest places on earth.
The performances are strong, with its leading players working nicely off of one another. There is some great chemistry there. I believed that they had been to hell and back together. The story focuses on a friendship of decades and that was touching. A particular poignant scene, that I actually enjoyed for the most part, was a meeting in the depths of the Jungle by a peaceful stream. I won't tell you much more in fear of spoilers, but it is filmed and performed in a strange, dream-like way, with fog of the wilderness stumbling in the background and the sun beaming through the trees in spite of the density, that the story itself moved me for the first time. The archive moved me without a doubt, this was the only time the story really moved me.
'...Lee could be trying to say something here too but at this point every argument I make is subjective...'
But once they were in the jungle, it sure seems like they forgot about all those mines still un-found throughout it. Little details like this, the focus on how alert they were about gibbons in the distance but strolling about freely in clearings, wandering off whilst the guy with metal detector is in the other direction, that confound me. It is such a rookie mistake for the veterans to make; they're not paying attention to their surroundings at all. Sometimes, they didn't act like soldiers. Once again, Lee could be trying to say something here too but at this point every argument I make is subjective, clearly.
Lee's signature style pops up with the gliding shot (of which I was not too keen this time, feeling more psychotic than sentimental) and his talking head speeches. The latter worked well enough although a little overused. Also the soundtrack, with a score that was effective when used well and accompanied by songs mostly made up of Marvin Gaye's wonderful pieces about peace and harmony. With a voice as sweet as his, it softens even the meanest cynic in town, such as myself, distracting me occasionally.
'...would this films style and story convince anyone that it was a great film?'
So, what was the point I was making. For a film that is trying to say too much, trying to tell a buddy drama, trying to make you react throughout, it didn't manage to impress me on all these things. But can I say this because it's Spike Lee? As I've said before it's all subjective, right? But had Lee made this twenty-five years ago as I suggested before, would this films style and story convince anyone that it was a great film? Will people think it's great because it's different? Will people, so over-saturated by the crap coming out today, see a Vietnam story told in a different way and think they've struck gold with a mish-mash story like this? I think they will.
I'm being hard because it's Spike Lee. Considered one of the greatest directors of his generation. I recently saw and Malcolm X (1992) and really liked it. Da 5 Bloods has so many similarities to that with the classic being fifty minutes longer than. But it has one sole purpose, and that purpose is very, very powerful. I think this film is too long, explores too much without getting me invested in its run-time. I think some scenes are hammy, that the music can be too much, and that the style doesn't always suit the substance. I think Lee could have tried less and done more. I think Netflix had too much influence, its present in the very film-making itself. Of the aspects that moved me, it was good work. But as a product, I'm not buying it. I'm sorry about that, because I wanted to.