Da 5 Bloods: The things they left behind.
When Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo first began shopping their sprawling story of a Vietnam treasure hunt around the studios, it was conceived with four white veterans in mind. IMDB reports that Lloyd Levin, producer of Da 5 Bloods, saw enough similarities between the script and Spike Lee’s favorite film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that a copy found its way into the director’s hands. Intrigued by the premise, Lee called his preferred collaborator of late, Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman), and together they retooled the script with black soldiers in mind. The history lessons imparted are essential; Lee’s pedantic storytelling is anything but.
Da 5 Bloods is not Lee’s first war joint. Miracle at St. Anna was made in response to Clint Eastwood’s WWII duad, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. Lee publicly called the director into question over his films’ lack of African-American characters. (Part 1 details the story behind the famous photo of the six men who raised the flag at Iwo Jima — none of whom were black — while its follow-up assumes the Japanese point-of-view.) Clint quizzically replied, “If I go ahead and put an African-American actor in there, people’d go: ‘This guy’s lost his mind.’ I mean, it’s not accurate.”
Lee references several notable films in his attempt to carry out this fictional account of a “real” war hero. When a character is instructed to slam “fugazi” John Rambo with, “All them Hollywood MF’ers trying to go back and win the Vietnam war,” there had better be something more up one’s sleeve than pompous dogmatism. It’s one thing to reference Apocalypse Now (the film’s logo is emblazoned across a disco wall), another to underscore a chopper raid with “Ride of the Valkyries,” the obviousness of which is grubby at best. And as delivered, the “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges” line feels more like a lift from Mel Brooks rather than a nod to John Huston.
Lee’s biggest accomplishment was assembling a cast of seasoned Hollywood veterans to bring to life his saga of four African-American survivors of the Vietnam War (and son) who reunite in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), ostensibly to track down the remains of their squadron leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). But thar’s gold in them there jungles: their platoon was ordered to locate a CIA plane that went down with a box of gold bars — payroll for the local mercenaries who sided with America in its fight against the VC. The treasure was buried in the jungle, awaiting the day our quartet would return to dig it up and put the money towards reparations.
Otis (Clarke Peters) calls on a prostitute (Y. Lan) who is also the mother of his daughter to help move the money overseas. On the surface, Eddie’s (Norm Lewis) string of car dealerships makes him the wealthiest ever former first infantry division pensioner. Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) adds comic relief. (He avoids the grunt work by positioning himself as a specialist in geiger counter sweeping.) The filmmakers chose not to cast younger actors for the flashbacks, nor to follow in Scorsese’s costly footsteps by drinking from a digital fountain of youth. It was a wise decision, what with Norman frozen in time and the surviving Bloods still fighting the war.
Next to institutional racism — “We fought in an immoral war for rights we didn’t have” — the film’s major source of dramatic contention is Paul (Delroy Lindo), a PTSD-denying, MAGA hat-wearing racist — he’s the only one of the group who still refers to the locals as “gooks” — who hasn’t been the same since his wife died giving birth to their son David (Jonathan Majors). (David shows up looking to share in the loot.) The film’s attempt to use the father and son relationship to reheat a cliche souffle falls flat, as does Paul’s incessant stream-of-conscious jabber. Paul could have taken a lesson from Rambo by every now and then by reeling back the dialogue. And instead of mocking First Blood, Lee should have studied it — to see how one goes about assembling a brilliant anti-Vietnam war action picture that never once talks down to its audience.
If only Lee and Willmott had put as much care into structuring their joint as they did rolling and torching blunt missives. Talk about coincidence: wouldn’t you know it, the French woman David tries to pick up in a bar just happens to make a living locating and defusing landmines. What do you think the chances are of her appearing out of nowhere a few reels later when one of our heroes finds himself in a minefield with one foot precariously positioned over a popper? And do they ever find the money? Does David shit in the woods? Of course he does! The gold just happens to be buried beneath the very spot over which he squats.
Champion of filmmakers combining documentary realism with narrative storytelling that I am, I should be happier here. Lee and Willmott had a bold and original story to tell in BlacKkKlansman, but wedging a plausible story between sermonizing and outlining their course curriculum is too much for them here. And at 154 minutes, the pallid last half of the Da 5 Bloods could have used a transfusion. ★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Babyteeth — A teen cancer romance with bracingly dark comedic shadings. Anna (Essie Davis) and Henry (Ben Mendelsohn) will do anything to make their dying daughter Milla (Eliza Scanlen) happy, even if it means inviting Moses (Toby Wallace), her drug-pushing, face-tatted miscreant of a boyfriend, to come live with them. They even go so far as backing his business endeavors, giving Moses free reign over their medicine cabinet and so supplying the lad with mucho opioids to sell. This is the first film for both director Shannon Murphy and screenwriter Rita Kalnejais. Narratively speaking, their lack of permanent teeth might explain some of the more scattered film-school capriciousness on display. (Psychiatrist Henry leaves a patient hanging on the couch while he runs next door to change the lightbulb of the pregnant, chain-smoking teen he fancies.) See it for Scanlen who, in her first screen appearance, imbues Milla with a simultaneous ability to recognize love, independence, and the sound of the second-hand ticking away. 2020 —S.M. ★★
Rewind — The point of home movies is to commemorate happy events. But for filmmaker Sasha Neulinger, the memories were unbearable: a glance here, a gesture there... Hidden within the stack of VHS tapes were pieces of a ghastly childhood. For years, three family members (two uncles and a cousin) took turns sexually abusing the child. “You don’t want to open that door,” was the pediatrician’s reply when asked if the abuser could be an adult. Sasha was three when Uncle Harold singled out his nephew to continue his family’s cycle of abuse. (Harold, a beloved Cantor in New York’s largest synagogue and the most violent of the three, had also raped his younger brother.) Neulinger had the courage to speak up even after Uncle Harold threatened to kill him if he breathed a word. Unquestionably difficult to watch — wait until you learn details of Uncle Harold’s “punishment” — Neulinger’s heroic act of bravery will hopefully encourage and inspire others to come forward. 2020. —S.M. ★★★★