Joe’s Take

Through his long and decorated career, Spike Lee has graced audiences with a wealth of quality and important films. His career took off after he wrote and directed “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, one year before I was born. I missed out on a lot of his early work because I was just too young. The first of his films I remember seeing was 2006’s “Inside Man.” Even still, I was only 16 years old and not ready for his high concepts. Three years later, Lee teamed with the late Kobe Bryant for the documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work.” Watching a documentary about my favorite basketball player of all-time was an easy sell, but I was entering adulthood.

I started to truly develop my movie taste, and Lee’s films started to hit me. I rewatched “Inside Man,” which gets better every time I see it. My friend let me borrow “25th Hour,” and I loved that. While I still need to make up for lost time with the director’s work, I’ve been right here for his latest films. I adore 2018’s “BlacKkKlansman” and wish it won best picture at the Academy Awards. Without taking any party lines, I do think his films are important and usually capture the present perfectly. “Da 5 Bloods” is the most important and timely film of the year, and I’m here for it.

While the film centers on five black men who fought in the Vietnam War, Lee does a great job balancing the characters’ points of view. Early in the film, Paul (Delroy Lindo) pulls out a “Make America Great Again” hat, which stuns the other characters. While he serves as an individual still struggling to cope with life after the war 50 years later, Lee created a character who I disagreed with but understood his point of view.

Speaking of Lindo, what a performance. In a long career, the actor has never taken on a role with so much clout. The first movie I thought of when I saw he was in “Da 5 Bloods” was 1996’s “Broken Arrow.” Ya know? The John Woo film with John Travolta and Christian Slater? One of the most entertaining and terrible films I’ve ever seen? That one. I’m glad I can now associate with something much better. His performance proves Oscar-worthy. Yes, it’s still early in the year and yes, a lot of film releases were pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic. However, this performance will hold up and we’ll see him nominated for the now April ceremony. He has a powerful scene with his son during an intense sequence. He’s able to shift from loving father to selfish in the blink of an eye. He commands the screen, as he shares a brotherly love with the Bloods and jells with the group. Lindo also continues to engage the audience when he is alone on screen. It’s a phenomenal all-around performance that deserves recognition.

Lindo had the flashiest role, but that shouldn’t take away from the rest of the crew, starting with the rest of the Bloods. Clarke Peters (Otis), Isaiah Whitlock Jr. (Melvin) and Norm Lewis (Eddie) make the audience believe they are friends with a unique and even familial bond. Lee spends the most time with the level-headed Otis. While his chemistry with a Vietnamese woman in a subplot doesn’t work for me, Peters shines as the main protagonist who has to go toe-to-toe with Lindo’s spectacular performance. His subtle and calm role gives the audience a likeable and under control character. The film needs that balance.

While Whitlock and Lewis are the least developed Bloods, they make the most of their opportunities. Each impacts the film with memorable moments. I need to seek out some more of these actors’ works. They blew me away.

Chadwick Boseman (Stormin’ Norman) once again proves a great actor. While he only appears in flashback scenes, the actor who consistently plays prominent figures serves as the fifth Blood. He was their leader in Vietnam, someone the other Bloods looked up to and even immortalized. While he shines in powerful roles, Boseman went to a different place to play the revered Norman. The character has a certain level of mystic and the Bloods idolize him. Boseman makes it believable that his character deserves that admiration based on his presence.

Also, Jonathan Majors (David) can’t be overlooked. He shares an emotional and intense scene with Lindo, one of the best in the film. There are so many good performances that it’s difficult to not discuss more of them. Melanie Thierry (Hedy) did a great job as one of the lone women in the movie. Paul Walter Hauser (Simon), an actor who proved he could more than capably handle a leading role last year in “Richard Jewell,” is about eighth to 10th billing. That’s the depth of the cast.

I also think it says a lot that I didn’t have to look up anybody’s character name when writing this review. That proves a lot of them had a memorable impact on the film. That’s a credit to Lee.

The acting, dialogue and exploration of the characters prove the best parts of the film. Lee also does incredible work creating tension. He introduces a gun, land mines and shady characters to keep the audience on edge. The sense of dread effectively lingers over the audience.

I could see how the flashback sequences may serve as a point of contention, but the ratio changes from 16:9 to 4:3 and not de-ageing the characters worked for me. I took it as the four surviving Bloods looking back on moments during the war. Therefore, it made sense in these dream-type sequences that they would remain their same ages. It also eliminates a possibility of failure in the de-aging technology.

I only have nitpicks for “Da 5 Bloods.” At times, the film dips into more of a theater style when a character breaks away from the group and gives monologues more so suited for the stage. They work for the most part, but the shift in presentation is a bit jarring, especially when the bond among the Bloods feels so genuine. Also, Lee likes to use the moving walkway shots in a lot of his films. When I first saw it in “Inside Man,” I thought it looked cool and was used effectively. He also uses it in “BlacKkKlansman” and he uses it again in “Da 5 Bloods.” So now it feels like his signature that isn’t always necessary.

“Da 5 Bloods” is a well-acted, well-written and well-directed film that proves powerful and incredibly relevant. Lee adds real-life footage for the second straight film, which blends perfectly with the movie and the events of today. “Da 5 Bloods” is the best film I’ve seen this year and the most important. At least one of those statements may still prove true in six months.

4.5 out of 5 stars

“Da 5 Bloods”

Rebecca’s Take

With a career spanning over 30 years, Spike Lee is known for having his finger on the pulse of current events and issues. Amid the racial turmoil erupting in our nation, the daring director applies his visionary brand of filmmaking to a story relevant for our times in his latest film, “Da 5 Bloods.”

The powerful war drama follows a group of four black Vietnam veterans who reunite to retrieve the remains of their fallen squad leader – and the buried gold treasure they left behind. An expert blend of substance, style and excellent acting, “Da 5 Bloods” is a treasure itself. Using the turbulent past as a lens to view the divisive present, Lee’s sweeping epic is the best – and most significant – film of the year.

Originally set to debut at the Cannes Film Festival before the event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, “Da 5 Bloods” went straight to streaming on Netflix. Full of cinematic flourishes, “Da 5 Bloods” brings a big-screen feel to the small screen.

A true craftsman of film, Lee seamlessly bounces back and forth between the modern day and the Vietnam War by using a few different techniques. For the scenes set in the present, Lee filmed them digitally using a 16:9 aspect ratio. But for the Vietnam flashbacks, the director switches to 16 mm film and a 4:3 aspect ratio. The stylistic changes add an authentic and era-appropriate feel to the war scenes.

The vivid cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel features an earthy color palette, calling back to the greens and browns from the jungles of Vietnam. The violent encounters that befall the group harken back to the Vietnam battles. The expert display of filmmaking makes me wish I could have seen the film in a movie theater as Lee originally intended.

For the flashbacks, Lee uses the same actors to play their younger selves, forgoing the use of de-aging technology as some films, like “The Irishman,” have done recently. This threw me off at first, as noticing the white and gray in Lindo and Peters’ beards during the Vietnam sequences took me out of the movie. But the film accentuates the power of collective memory as the friends look back on their shared experiences in the war. The choice makes sense from a storytelling standpoint.

With a strong script and rousing dialogue, “Da 5 Bloods” boasts a tremendous cast of actors. The friendship and camaraderie between the four returning veterans – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) – comes through from the moment they hug in a hotel lobby. Calling themselves the “Bloods,” the men are forever bound by the tragic loss of their friend, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), and their battlefield trauma.

As the PTSD-suffering Paul, Lindo delivers an Oscar-worthy performance, capably delivering some of the film’s most stirring soliloquies. Proudly wearing his “Make America Great Again” cap, the arrogant Paul is a supporter of Donald Trump, having struggled to rejoin society since coming back from Vietnam. The strong-willed and stubborn veteran is haunted by his past demons, making him sympathetic even when his choices are questionable. Even if you don’t agree with the character’s political views, Lindo’s nuanced takes helps viewers understand where he’s coming from.

Lindo’s flashy performance contrasts with the understated roles of his fellow actors. While Paul is hot-tempered and outspoken, Otis remains cool-headed and calm as a former medic. Taking a subtle approach, Peters keeps the group’s feet on the ground as events spiral out of their control. Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), also serves as a foil to his distant father. The sensitive teacher stays in touch with his emotions while Paul is constantly battling his. Lewis and Whitlock add humor as Eddie and Melvin, respectively. But the two are short-changed in character development as the film focuses more on some members of the Bloods than others.

The supporting performances are also outstanding. In his limited time onscreen, Boseman shines as Stormin’ Norman, inspiring his friends during the war and after his untimely death. The character takes on a mythic level among the group, aided by Boseman’s warm charisma. Mélanie Thierry is smart and resourceful as Hedy, the founder of a landmine disarmament team. Johnny Nguyen offers a voice of reason as Vinh, the group’s knowledgeable tour guide who becomes their friend.

Like Lee’s brilliant masterpiece “BlacKkKlansman,” “Da 5 Bloods” mixes in archive footage to bridge the past and present. While “BlacKkKlansman” offered biting commentary on white supremacy, “Da 5 Bloods” looks at how black men were willing to sacrifice their lives in an unpopular war for a country that didn’t appreciate their efforts. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, racial injustice is still ever-present in the U.S. Lee’s film is incredibly timely and important, a must-see as the nation confronts its views on racism.

“Da 5 Bloods” shows that quality filmmaking can still make its way to viewers during the movie theater shutdown. With its strong acting, sweeping story and relevant message, Lee’s war epic is not just a movie, but an immersive experience. As our nation looks inward, “Da 5 Bloods” holds up a mirror and asks us to judge our present – and change our future.

4.5 out of 5 stars