As many of you will probably remember, Spike Lee is one of my favourite directors. I’ve very nearly finished all of his work after one hell of a binge in early 2019, and I really like the majority of his work. Spike is a director who tends to direct similar films, or at least, films with similar ideologies to share and similar ways to share them (his repeated traits make him one of the standout auteurs currently working in America). Spike has been snubbed time and time again, whether it be the loss of the Best Picture Oscar to Driving Miss Daisy or the almost comical repetition of said loss with Green Book more recently, Spike continued to make some beautifully crafted and seriously soulful films that tend to look at African American life in America through a usually political lens that create microcosms of small stories that represent far bigger issues, whether it be Do The Right Thing’s look at race issues in America as a whole shown through the conflicts in one day within one small part of New York or School Daze’s… pretty bad representation of higher learning (let’s just say that John Singleton did MUCH better when he made Higher Learning around a decade later).
His newest film, Da 5 Bloods, is a film that sees Spike finally able to get some real funding behind him for the first time since Malcolm X in 1992. I’ve been advocating what Netflix are doing with film releasing for a little while now, and with quarantine still in full effect in most parts of the world it seems to have become twice as useful to be able to have films release at home at the same time as they would have hit cinemas. Spike has never been as recognised as he really deserved, especially in mainstream circles who seem to know him primarily for Oldboy (which isn’t as bad as people say, but it’s… admittedly pretty far from Spike’s finest hour, let’s be real here), and so Netflix seems to be giving Spike quite the opportunity with this release to raise in those ranks. It’s exciting to see to say the least!
It’s almost a shame that the film that would be Spike’s biggest chance to shine would be Da 5 Bloods, though. It’s not a bad film – Spike’s direction feels a little tired but on the whole it’s still solid, the performances are pretty great (especially from Delroy Lindo, who makes the tough job of playing a deeply conflicted wreck of a man look easy) and the cinematography is mostly beautiful as it switches through aspect ratios from extreme wide to full screen to 4:3, but it’s the script that halts this one in a surprising way. To put it simply, this film bites off a little more than it can chew, and with that the film becomes predictable and slowly less interesting.
Da 5 Bloods isn’t exactly anything new for Lee outside of its shinier production value. Granted, there is a moment where one character admits to being right wing/supporting Trump but that’s soon dismissed by being turned into a gag (“Is that a MAGA hat? God damn!”) and being reasoned with by making this character the very same who is often deranged and “needs counselling”, so take that how you will. Other than that, this tramples the familiar ground that we have come to recognise Lee for.
The film is playful enough and the way that Lee uses form to consistently shake up his audience is great – those cuts to snapshots from history are ALWAYS effective – and the introductory scene is wonderful as it lays down a historical and political backdrop for both the Vietnam war and it’s aftermath in both America and the world at large. The pacing holds it back somewhat, but the way that the film slowly deteriorates into proving that classic meme from Call of Duty “War… war never changes”, it does become more interesting and Spike’s direction becomes more abrasive. Spike uses his diverse cast to bring to light the “atrocities on both sides” from the Vietnam war and investigates just as thoroughly their lasting impact, comparing that to the lasting impact of slavery and of history as a whole on race relations, social groups, etc etc. today. This investigation into the effects of history on the present is certainly the best part of the film as it does mark (some) new territory for Lee – he has investigated history before with Malcolm X, but never this thoroughly and never this negatively either. This new stance makes the film far more interesting.
It doesn’t take a genius to look at the advertising for a Spike Lee film based around war to figure out that the stance will be against it, but I didn’t expect Spike to be as critical as he is of the present (and how it has been damaged by the same history that we ALL share and are all effected by without even realising it most of the time). The ideas shared of war being bad, “war is money, money is war”, imperialism being bad, Americans trying to erase or rewrite history, etc. aren’t really anything new, but Spike’s mode of delivery is, so they earn half a pass. I just wish he went a little further with these ideas and really dug in as he has done before with his best projects such as When The Levees Broke (which holds politicians and companies to account for the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in such a scathing way I’ll never forget it) and Bamboozled (which does a similarly scathing dance on the body of television). Maybe his higher budget meant that he was neutered somewhat, maybe he just didn’t have the same sharp points to make here, but it doesn’t hit the same either way.
To see Spike engage as he does with the almost barren landscape of Vietnam, one that has been wrought by capitalism, one who’s jungles have been ravaged by poachers and one that has been colonised but not fully, still feeling the paranoia and aftermath but also an odd reliance on American traits and money, is also fascinating given that almost all of his other films function solely as American art. I don’t know enough personally about ‘Nam to go into much detail on Spike’s representation of modern Vietnam, but for the portrayal of the war itself, Spike wears the influence of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Cimino’s incredible The Deer Hunter (two other great revisionist war films that look at Vietnam and its lingering effect on both Americans and The Vietnamese) quite proudly on his sleeve, which is great to see as this film continues to carry the torch that seemed to have been dropped and even buried after Coppola’s masterpiece came out in 1979 until now.
Spike’s latest isn’t as vitriolic or as daring as his finest films have been, but considering that this film quite likely will mark a change in his career thanks to his choice to release through Netflix and the coincidence that is quarantine hitting at the same time, it’s certainly not all bad. It just lacks the urgency that many of Spike’s finest works have, this one seeming to be his first “Old man movie”, as it were. It makes a lot of sense given that the film brings together 50, almost 60, years of conflict between America and Vietnam (again, this acts as a microcosm for the world at large), but it still hurts at least a little to see Spike direct from the backseat rather than relaxing at the other side of the finish line. When taken at face value as a story, it’s plenty engaging and entertaining, but it’s lacking that classic Spike Lee vitriol that makes his best work so poignant and so striking. It’s missing the Spike Lee flair – parts of this film feel as if it is directed by someone else entirely – but who knows, maybe this represents a shift in Spike’s career towards a more formal method. For now, it feels like the statements made are lost somewhat to this overgrown plot and messy script… but only time will tell.