Following Spike Lee’s most recent hit BlacKkKlansman (2018), the stage is set for a heavy and a possibly soul-crushingly lamentful watch. So, I shifted in my seat and prepared for exactly that. Just seconds into the opening I am immediately greeted with stomach-churning graphic images of war and terror; “here we go!” I thought; the bar is set, I’m in for something truly transformative. Well, by the time 10 minutes had elapsed I’d all but forgotten about what happened minutes earlier as the tone has shifted, not once, not twice, but three times within that 10 minute timeframe; and so begins the regularly scheduled theme of Da 5 Bloods throughout the near entirety of its runtime.
Da 5 Bloods follows the story of four army veterans who return to Vietnam in their older age for the remains of a fallen soldier and to recover something lost. Spike lays out two timelines in this film – one set in the past and one set in the present. So yes, this film contains inter-cuts between the past and future – meaning there’s a wider palette of tones it must balance when switching between these timelines. I often found myself more at home in the past rather than the present, as what was happening in the past felt like it juxtaposed today’s issues more effectively. The young bloods were simply more engaging and interesting people.
Da 5 Bloods has a range of problematic symptoms, including temporary amnesia of scene preceding each other and what I can only describe as tonal spaghetti. Now, I don’t generally like to focus on dissecting just issues I had with a film, but in this case, I feel like if I’m going to critique a Spike Lee joint, I may as well do it properly.
Now, despite such heavy themes and messages being tackled in Da 5 Bloods, it often feels like it’s in a suspended state of comedy or lightheartedness at all times. This is not a good thing, at least, not for this specific film, as there is a very focused effort here by Spike Lee to broadcast his message; but this message becomes difficult to truly take in when the film itself lacks self-conviction — balancing comedy and serious drama is tough, but when there’s a very topical message being told, it can be difficult to take it on the chin when the film itself feels like its pulling its punches.
Spike’s use of visual flavour is also inconsistent here, but not necessarily to a fault. We see him clearly making major distinctions between the past and present through an array of different techniques and technologies. The past is mostly shot in either 8mm (Super8) and 16mm — both of which are notoriously grainy and low quality film stocks, generally used these days to create an intentional sense of degradation — modern examples of 16mm being used can be seen in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2012) – with 8mm being rarer, but can be seen in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002). Spike’s use of aspect ratio switching is very intentional and very fun, when we switch from past (1.33:1) to present (1.85:1, 2.39:1), Spike really points out the change — other such examples of ratio switching can be seen in Lucy in the Sky (2019) and even more inventive examples can be seen in The Life of Pi (2012). On a color level, there seems to be extremely heavy color-grading on this film, such to the point that the modern scenes look especially oversaturated, this grading works for the past sequences, but has no home in the present. To put things bluntly, Spike makes some hits and misses with his visuals, but the overall result is clean enough.
While its social timeliness is undoubtedly impactful and its diverse characters keep the viewer engaged; Da 5 Bloods overindulgent genre-blending and indecisive style leaves this Spike Lee joint feeling; of all things; disjointed. Spike is a seasoned veteran of portraying these kinds of themes, but on occasion, he is known to miss his mark. This is both a disjointed film in terms of tone and style, ultimately leading to a coagulated flow and shifty feel to the whole affair – which was a shame, as it could’ve provided a deeper bite into the dark legacy of such a brutal and deranged war.