Whilst director Spike Lee has often attracted controversy, what was notable for several years was that his cinematic output was much weaker in quality, with 2008-2014 being his dark age specifically. Movies like Miracle at St Anna and the disastrous Oldboy remake especially were released during this period and were gigantic critical and commercial failures. However, his post-2014 films, Chi-Raq and Blackkklansman, received his best reviews since Inside Man or 25th Hour, with the latter also being very commercially successful. His newest “Joint”, his first collaboration with Netflix, is another success that continues his good streak.
4 Vietnam veterans, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors) meet up again for the first time in decades, with their 5th squad member Norman (Chadwick Boseman) being long dead and having stashed gold back in Vietnam. The group decides to go and get this gold and find Norman’s remains, with tensions being present between Paul and David due to Paul’s still lingering PTSD and the situation eventually escalates into chaos.
Despite the premise, one should not expect any kind of action-adventure narrative, as the story operates at a slow burn across 155 minutes. Because of the simple narrative framework, what becomes notable is that Lee has made one of his more experimental films, often cutting to stock footage and switching between aspect ratios. He combines these touches with clear classical cinematic inspirations that show themselves in the flashbacks that are shot on old film stock and some very unsubtle references to movies like Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Whilst the style does make for a somewhat jarring experience, Lee still manages to keep narrative focus through keeping the POV of 3 of the major characters, specifically Paul, Otis, and David. All three of these characters are well defined and developed, having interesting character arcs that go into some uncomfortable yet interesting places, though many other characters do feel like they are just there to die. The lack of subtlety and constant changes in the style also works rather well with the story sections they are used in, as well as reminding the viewers of the real horrors of the Vietnam war, which might be too much for some but for me was not an issue at all.
Lee also keeps the feeling of tension, drama, and brutality all throughout, especially in some very powerful individual scenes. The only aspect that does feel too secondary is the threat that emerges in the final act, which could have been more developed and feels like it is there for the sake of an exciting climax, especially compared to the more believable situations that occur beforehand.
As for the thing people will be wondering most about, the social commentary is not quite as heavy as some of Lee’s other films, but it is still very present. The main message is about the importance of unity and of having strong leaders, reflected in the connections drawn between Norman and Martin Luther King and how his absence results in the “Bloods” constantly fighting amongst themselves. It is no wonder that Paul, the main disrupter of the group, is shown to be a staunch Trump supporter. Though despite this film’s commentary being harsh, it is arguably one of Lee’s more optimistic, with the conclusion being a lot more positive than Blackkklansman’s depressing finale.
The actors that bring the characters to life are on their A-game, with Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman giving charismatic turns and Jonathan Majors being excellent in a performance that shows why he is an exciting new talent. But Delroy Lindo as Paul will get all the buzz and he deserves it. Whilst he does overact on a couple of occasions, his performance is powerful and gut-wrenching, especially in a couple of key monologues.
Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee being given the free reign to do whatever he wants by Netflix and whilst the results are abrasive and a little messy, it still succeeds at its ambitions and has enough on its mind to provoke plenty of post-movie discussion. It’s a relevant movie that says a lot about the past and the present, overall being one of the standouts of 2020 so far.