Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 12, 2020 6:03 pm 
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Back to black in Vietnam

Spike Lee's second war movie is a mixed bag. It's intense and powerfully acted enough to hold your attention for over two and a half hours - or would, in a movie theater, where its explosive action would grip the room. In this time when Black Lives Matter has gone global its focus on black veterans could not be more potentially relevant. But as Justin Chang says in his Los Angeles Times review, its tonal shifts are abrupt enough "to induce whiplash", and that's compounded by a "moral and narrative chaos. " Such chaos, admittedly, may be justifiable as a reflection of America's racial history. But the intensity and fervent argumentation aren't reinforced artistically. And yet, even when what he's doing doesn't quite work, Lee remains a powerful filmmaker full of energy and with a hell of a lot to say.

Lee takes a group of black Vietnam vets who while they were fighting together became a passionately loyal band of brothers who called themselves "Da Bloods." They return to 'Nam now for a dual purpose. (Just apologizing, remembering, and honoring the country's inherent beauty and integrity apparently don't suffice.) They're going back to find the body of their leader, "Stormin' Norm" (Chadwick Boseman) who died in their midst, his body left in the field. Boseman has played black giants like Jackie Robinson and James Brown, but he looks small and young in flashbacks, where he clashes with the bulky, aging actors who aren't replaced by younger ones or CGI'd back to youthfulness. (Lee says this was a choice but Chang says Netflix just didn't give him enough money.) Boseman is also dwarfed by the extremely beefy Jonathan Majors, who plays David, son of the key Blood, who turns up unexpectedly in Vietnam to be one of the band - and awaken screamingly intense family conflict issues.

The Vietnam reunion's other purpose is pecuniary. While in combat, they waylaid a shipment of American gold bars worth millions they were supposed to convey to a tribe as a payment, and they buried it. They plan to find that and arrange, with a sleazy post-colonial character in a white suit called Desroche played by Jean Reno, to get it out of the country for themselves.

The return of the variously post traumatic stress-inflicted veterans is complicated by several meetings. There is the emotional reunion of one of the Bloods, Otis (Clarke Peters) with his Vietnamese girlfriend and the shock of meeting the grown up mixed-race daughter he did not know he had. Deeper into the action part of the film David is distracted by meeting a beautiful woman from a Vietnam-rich French family called Hedy Bouvier (Mélanie Thierry). She has some American cohorts with in-country savvy who're agents of her land mine detonating organization LAMB, Love Against Mines and Bombs.

Things are, of course, also complicated by the various Vietnamese people the Bloods encounter, who know exactly who they are and what they did - killed their fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, needlessly and immorally. The fact that African Americans have suffered four hundred years of oppression at home doesn't excuse their coming to Vietnam and killing dark skinned people - the thing Muhammad Ali spoke against in one of Lee's numerous film clip citations, which can pop up at any time.

Some of this relates to The Deer Hunter, but the treasure trove of gold and the way it derails the brotherhood of Da Bloods obviously relates to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which is on Lee's list of favorite films. This is a classic story idea - there's a version of it in The Canterbury Tales - and it has a certain power to pull things together. But its essence is that treasure makes men forget everything else, and Lee and the screenplay writers, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott, have way too much else on their agenda for that kind of riveting unification of narrative thread to take place.

There is a lot of comedy here, also a lot of anger and a lot of combat-level violence, most of it happening in the present moment. There is Norm Lewis as Eddie, and a couple of "The Wire" colleagues, Isiah Whitlock Jr., as Melvin and Clarke Peters as Otis. Delroy Lindo is a Spike Lee regular (four credits), and also the central figure, a raging Trump supporter who dominates the screen for a lot of the action as the tormented Paul, whose PTSD is far worse than the others', and we eventually find out a good reason why - itt's not just that he served three tours. Delroy Lindo is a great actor and he's thoroughly up to every scene-stealing demand the script throws at him. When he wanders off soliloquizing by himself in the jungle it's time for another influence to reappear from earlier, Apocalypse Now. Many other chords are struck with a Motown-rich sound track scored by Terence Blanchard that memorably includes the men dancing in a Ho Chi Minh City club to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up."

Lee wants to teach us and doesn't mind interrupting the movie to do so. In fact as the Washington Post's Ann Hornaday points out, strangely enough it's the early illustrative African American Studies segment of clips, when he's got us fresh and has our attention for what she calls the "sharply polemical, "invigorating," and "vibrant prologue," that winds up being some of the best filmmaking in Da 5 Bloods. America's raw and unresolved racial history is what this movie, and Spike Lee, are about, and the Vietnam story is just what it hangs its hat on.

All this feels like a mess, but it's a rather wonderful mess. Some people's failures are better than most other people's successes. Still, I feel sure that a great film is much simpler - and more coherent - than this.

Da 5 Bloods, 155 mins., debuted June 12, 2020 on Netflix in 18 countries, including the United States of America. Metascore 82%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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