Spike Lee in slick mode, working with different textures, the camera gliding, hand-held, in constant motion but controlled with particular effects in mind. A heist film where what’s at stake is not only will the crooks get caught but what are they after? What secrets are hidden in those bank vaults? Will the wealthy be held to account if the origin of their wealth accumulation involves crimes against humanity. Jodie Foster steals every moment she’s in, and this from Denzel Washington and Christopher Plummer. Smarter and better educated than anyone else in the room; elegant, charming, threatening, vaguely asexual; it occurred to me the role was an old-fashioned lesbian stereotype that her casting underlined but that her performance was embodying with particular charm and vibrancy, including that odd duck walk on vertiginously high heels. I liked it much more than I expected but at the end I also had a vague twinge that I had seen it before and forgotten, or maybe just skimmed though parts of it on Netflix…..
Spike Lee’s latest joint sees four US Army veterans, the Bloods, return to their former battlefields in Vietnam in search of two things: the body of their fallen comrade and leader, Stormin’ Norman, and a cache of gold bars, intended during the war to pay the Lahu people for their help fighting the Viet Cong, but taken and buried by the Bloods for themselves. Set in the modern day, exploring the history of black oppression and racism in the USA, and released on Netflix among a backdrop of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, Da 5 Bloods could hardly be more relevant. But is it successful?
No, argues José. Spike Lee is in full-on propagandist, pamphleteer mode here, delivering lessons about racism and class, warfare and imperialism, black martyrs and heroes, but inartfully and clunkily. Although his direct address is striking and powerful, the Rambo-esque action adventure story to which it’s married lacks imagination and intelligence, and really functions only as a frame from which to hang the film’s essays. Its representation of the Vietnamese is at best crude and even arrogant, a scene with a man selling oranges and chickens particularly egregious, and its characters are thinly drawn, their relationships and development unsatisfying. Mike argues for one or two things he likes, particularly the way in which Stormin’ Norman is integrated into the story and the flashbacks to the war are put together, but ultimately cannot but agree with José’s disappointment.
Da 5 Bloods is an overpraised film that promises more than it delivers. But someone has finally managed to make a Vietnam film without using “Fortunate Son”, so there’s that.
I’m a sap. I know. But this gets to me every time. The music is by Michel Legrand. Catherine Deneuve is the young girl in love. The almost as beautiful Nino Castelnueovo is the young man who loves her back but is conscripted into two years of military service. You might note the influence of the MGM musical: –the streets were painted so that the colour scheme could become one of those largely unnoticed but crucial elements that create meaning and feeling in movies — perhaps excessively so: see how in the bar the drink on the table matches the background yellow. Vincente Minnelli was a particular influence on director Jacques Demy and you can detect it in the use of background, décor, costumes and particularly in the flowing camera movements. Everything is consciously put in the frame, everything signifies — that’s why we feel it so deeply. The end, when the couple seems to be floating on air, is particularly lovely — and significant — as the rest of the film is about how all those young dreams are crushed. For many years that type of shot with the camera maintaining equal distance from the characters whilst they seemed to move seamlessly, as if standing still on an a moving sidewalk, was often to be found in Spike Lee’s films but with lesser impact and effect. Seeing it on its first release and far away from home, Kurt Vonnegut wrote his wife, ‘I saw Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.’ One of the great musical numbers of all time and a very wonderful film.
 Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, Edited and with an introduction by Dan Wakefield, London: Vintage Books, 2013; p. 107.