Review: ‘The Harder They Fall’ (2021), starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler and Danielle Deadwyler

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“The Harder They Fall” (2021)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in the mid-1880s, the Western action drama “The Harder They Fall” has a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: When cowboy Nat Love finds out that his arch-enemy Rufus Buck has escaped from prison, Nat assembles a posse that battles against Rufus’ gang.

Culture Audience: “The Harder They Fall” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, action-oriented Western dramas about the underrepresented African American cowboy culture of the 1880s, but viewers of the movie should have a high tolerance for over-the-top violence.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

With grisly violence that is almost cartoonish, “The Harder They Fall” puts a well-acted spotlight on real-life African American cowboys of the 1880s. The movie’s excessive violence might be a turnoff to some viewers. But for viewers who can tolerate all the blood and gore, “The Harder They Fall” is a bumpy and thrilling ride with a top-notch cast.

“The Harder They Fall” is the second feature film of director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote “The Harder They Fall” screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Samuel, also composed the movie’s score, has said in interviews that the title of the movie was inspired by the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliffnot the 1956 Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger movie “The Harder They Fall.” Samuel is a British filmmaker (he’s the younger brother of pop star Seal) who grew up adoring Western movies. However, Samuel eventually found out that these Westerns often gave inaccurate demographic depictions of what post-Civil War life was like the Old West of the 19th century.

In reality, people of color and women had much more agency and independence in Old West culture than what’s shown in most old-time Western movies, which usually portray only white men as leaders of cowboy posses. “The Harder They Fall” aims to course-correct these historical exclusions by doing a fictional portrayal of real-life African American posse members from the 19th century. In case it wasn’t clear enough, a caption in the movie’s introduction states in big and bold letters: “While the events are fictional, the people are real.” (At least the movie’s main characters are based on real people.)

“The Harder They Fall” also doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that there were good and bad cowboy posses. Black people are no exception. The African Americans in the movie are not portrayed as subservient stereotypes, but they aren’t exactly saintly either. Most are just trying to get by and live good lives, while there are some hardened criminals who create chaos for people who have the misfortune of crossing their paths. “The Harder They Fall” takes place in various parts of Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

“The Harder They Fall” opens with a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love (played by Chase Dillon) witnessing the brutal murder of his parents—Reverend Love (played by Michael Beach) and wife Eleanor Love (played by DeWanda Wise)—during a home invasion. The gangsters shoot Nat’s parents, but they spare Nat’s life. The leader of this gang uses a knife to carve a cross on Nat’s forehead.

About 20 years later, Nat (played by Jonathan Majors) still has the scar on his forehead. And he’s had a lifelong obsession with getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his parents. Nat knows that Rufus Buck (played by Idris Elba) is the gang leader who is the main culprit for the murders. Rufus has recently been in prison for armed robbery and murder.

However, Nat finds out that Rufus has made a prison escape. Two of Rufus’ loyal cronies—ruthless Trudy Smith (played by Regina King) and smooth-talking Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield)—have hijacked the train where prisoner Rufus was being transported, and they broke Rufus out of the cell where he was being kept.

After Nat discovers that Rufus is now a free man (but still wanted by law enforcement), Nat assembles his own posse to get revenge. The other members of the Nat Love Gang are Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), who is Nat’s feisty love interest; Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi), who is a loyal and logical; Jim Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler), who is a cocky young cowboy; and Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who lives as a transgender man.

Nat makes a living by finding “wanted dead or alive” criminals for reward money. Nat has no qualms about killing these criminals if he thinks they deserve it. That’s what happens in an early scene in the movie when Nat shoots and kills a wanted criminal who shows up at a Catholic church with the intention of robbing the church. Nat’s reward is $5,000.

It turns out that Nat and his gang are outlaws too, because they make money by stealing from robbers. Therefore, one of their least-favorite people is Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo), a U.S. marshal who’s determined to put a stop to all this criminal activity. In addition to seeking revenge on Rufus, the Nat Love Gang also wants to avoid capture by Reeves and his law enforcement team. The posse members on both sides are also mistrustful of Wiley Esco (played by Deon Cole), the Redwood City mayor whose allegiances can be murky.

It should be noted that in real life, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character, which has been played by white actors in movies and television. Reeves was considered a pioneer for African Americans in law enforcement, because he did a lot to change American viewpoints that white people aren’t the only race who can become U.S. marshals. In real life, Reeves worked closely with Native American leaders. It’s an alliance that’s depicted in the movie too.

In many ways, “The Harder They Fall” follows a lot of the traditions of typical Westerns, with gun shootouts and chases on horseback. There’s also some romance, as Mary and Nat have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mary, who works as a saloon singer, has a hard time trusting Nat because he’s cheated on her in the past. Nat is an emotionally wounded rebel who’s trying to win back Mary’s heart, but first he has to learn how to heal his own broken heart.

And there’s inevitable fighting among posse members. Most of the friction in Nat’s gang comes from Jim and Bill having personality clashes with each other. Bill thinks Jim is arrogant and reckless, while Jim thinks that Bill is uptight and too cautious. It’s the classic older cowboy/younger cowboy conflict that’s often seen in Westerns.

There are also some gender issues with Cuffee, who wants to live life as a man, but some people think that Cuffee is a woman just doing a drag act. There are parts of the movie where people aren’t sure whether to call Cuffee a “he” or a “she,” since the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. And when Cuffee has to wear a dress (for reasons what won’t be revealed in this review), it makes Cuffee very uncomfortable. After seeing Cuffee in a dress, Jim blurts out that he now knows why was kind of attracted to Cuffee.

Damon Wayans Jr. has a small role in the movie as Monroe Grimes, someone who is captured by Nat’s posse members to get information about Rufus. As for Rufus, he’s a cold-blooded killer who has enough of a twinkle in his eye and swagger in his walk to indicate why his posse subordinates find him so magnetic. Mary can give Rufus a run for his money, in terms of being fearless in battle. Cherokee Bill is violent too, but he’s more likely to use psychology to try to outwit an opponent.

“The Harder They Fall” isn’t particularly innovative in the story structure and dialogue, but there are some impressive camera shots from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and the movie delivers when it comes to adrenaline-filled action scenes. A standout camera shot is in a scene where the camera zooms in with a bullet-like trajectory at a group of posse members to then reveal that there are others standing behind them. Also adding to the striking visuals of “The Harder They Fall” is the first-rate costume design by Antoinette Messam, who brought a practical yet fashionable look to many of these Old West characters.

All of the actors perform well in their roles, with the best scene-stealing moments coming from Majors, King, Elba, Beetz, Stanfield and Deadwyler. Where the movie falters a bit is in how it abandons its mostly gritty realism for some stunts that are so heavily choreographed, it takes you out of the realism and just becomes a reminder that this movie’s fight scenes can sometimes look like ultra-violent parodies of fight scenes in Westerns.

What doesn’t come across as a parody is how credibly the cast members portray their characters. These engaging characters bring real heart and soul to “The Harder They Fall.” (There’s also a poignant plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie that might or might not be surprising to some viewers.) Even though not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie, it’s clear by the movie’s last shot that there’s room for a sequel for a spinoff.

Netflix released “The Harder They Fall” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie’s Netflix premiere was on November 3, 2021.

Review: ‘LX 2048,’ starring James D’Arcy, Anna Brewster and Delroy Lindo

October 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Anna Brewster and James D’Arcy in “LX 2048” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“LX 2048”

Directed by Guy Moshe

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city in the year 2048, the sci-fi drama “LX 2048” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A terminally ill man, who works as a tech broker, has problems in his marriage and a life-insurance clause where he can be replaced by a clone.

Culture Audience: “LX 2048” will appeal to people who are interested in movies that explore the ethics and concepts of human cloning, but the movie’s main characters are not very easy to like. 

James D’Arcy and Delroy Lindo in “LX 2048” (Photo courtesy of Quiver Distribution)

“LX 2048” takes several familiar sci-fi concepts—a dystopian future, next-level virtual reality, chip-implant technology and human cloning—and mashes them all up together in a movie that ultimately becomes scatter-brained and a hokey melodrama in its last few scenes. Written and directed by Guy Moshe, “LX 2048” is the equivalent of a chef’s meal that has too many ingredients and yet not enough distinctive substance to make it enjoyable. Although the film might have started out with good intentions, ultimately it fails to deliver a cohesive story and characters with memorable personalities.

“LX 2048” is centered on Adam Bird (played by James D’Arcy), a tech broker in his 40s, who has recently been diagnosed with a heart illness. The prognosis is grim: He has less than a year to live. The beginning of the movie shows Adam in the office of his physician Dr. Maple (played by Juliet Aubrey), who tells him this bad news: “You’re not dying yet. Your heart is definitely failing though.”

Dr. Maple tries to look on the bright side, because she reminds Adam that he’s on Premium 3 insurance, which is a life-insurance policy where someone agrees that after death, that person can be brought back as a clone by a loved one. The clones are not immortal, but this cloning gives the dead person’s loved ones the illusion that the dead person is still with them. Many of the “people” in this world of “LX 2048” are actually human clones who don’t have souls but can mimic human emotions. Dr. Maple is one of those clones.

Premium 3 insurance has an “upgrade” where a loved one can request that the human clone can have characteristics that the deceased loved one did not have. In other words, physical features and personality traits can be changed or erased, according to the wishes of the beneficiaries listed in the policy. The insurance agents recommend that beneficiaries do not tell the policy holders while they are still alive what they would change about them.

Adam’s health diagnosis isn’t the only depressing thing about his life. He lives in a world where the ozone layer has become so depleted that sunlight has become a danger to people’s health, so people rarely go outside in the daytime. Those that do go outside during the day, such as Adam, have to hear hazmat suits.

Mental depression has become very common in the world’s population, so the government has required that people take 001LithiumX, which is anti-depressant medication that is nicknamed LX. Adam is a nonconformist who refuses to take LX. He also insists on commuting to an office for his job, while almost all of his colleagues work remotely from their homes.

In addition, at the time that Adam has been told that he doesn’t have much longer to live, his marriage has fallen apart. He is separated from his wife Reena (played Anna Brewster), who lives with their three underage sons: Kenny (played by Dylan Pierce), who’s about 13 or 14 years old; Joshua (played by Ronin Zaki Moshe), who’s about 9 or 10 years old; and Nate, who’s about 6 or 7 years old (Majus Motiejus Prokopas). The Birds are a rare family, because in this world where the future is bleak, having three kids is considered a large brood.

For whatever reason, Adam and Reena have held off on signing their divorce papers. However, the movie has a flashback of Adam and Reena in happier times, when they were a couple and when both signed up for Premium 3 insurance. They have separate policies, where each spouse is the beneficiary of the other one’s policy. Whether or not an “upgrade” option is chosen has a lot to do with that happens later in the movie.

When Adam calls Reena to tell her that he’s dying and that he wants to arrange visitation with their children, viewers don’t hear what Reena says on the other line, but it angers Adam to the point where he curses at her and yells that all she cares about is paperwork. It’s later revealed in the story that Reena as a restraining order against Adam. “Fuck you!” he shouts at Reena before he hangs up phone on her.

It isn’t the first time that Adam shows that he has a bad temper. In a virtual-reality meeting with the board of directors at the company he works for, Adam (who is shown wearing virtual-reality goggles as he sits alone in a conference room) yells at the other people in the meeting. It’s because they won’t listen to his advice to divest from virtual reality and invest more in technology chips that can be implanted in people. Adam strongly believes that chip implants and chip installations are the future of technology.

“Bye bye, goggles,” Adam says at one point when he’s by himself. “Sooner or later, I’m going to be out a job.” The company that Adam works for is already struggling financially, and he worries that if the board members don’t follow his advice, the company will go bankrupt or go out of business. And that would put his Premium 3 life insurance policy, which he has through the company, in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Reena grants Adam’s wish to see their kids, but the children are often unavailable to him because they’re “connected” to their devices. While Adam stays in a guest room, he begins having sex with a sex doll that is connected to a virtual-reality program that he uses. Reena catches him in the act and walks out of the room disgusted. Adam tries to apologize to Reena, but they get into an argument. Reena is very upset because the door was unlocked when she walked in, and she thinks it’s disrespectful that Adam would have sex in a way where any of the kids could possibly see him.

As the movie’s story unfolds, it turns out this other sex life that Adam has in his virtual-reality world is one of the main reasons why his marriage to Reena failed. Reena believes that Adam’s sexual “flings” in this virtual-reality world are infidelity in their marriage. Adam disagrees. And this disagreement reached a point where Reena demanded that Adam “disconnect” from this virtual sex life permanently, or else their marriage would be over.

Adam chose not to disconnect from virtual sex with other women. His current virtual-reality girlfriend Maria (played by Gabrielle Cassi) is about 20 years younger than Adam, and she looks like a typical fantasy blonde. Of course, because Adam has essentially created Maria in this virtual-reality world, she tells him everything he wants to hear to boost his ego and make him feel wanted. But there’s one big problem: Her emotions aren’t real. Adam hates to be reminded of this fact.

Meanwhile, the movie goes on another tangent where Adam tracks down a disgraced scientist named Donald Stein (played by Delroy Lindo), who has been “hiding” in a retirement home under the new name Jeremy Fisher. Dr. Stein has gone into hiding because he was ousted from his government job for making a clone of his virtual-reality lover. Adam idolizes Dr. Stein, whom Adam calls the “godfather of human cloning,”

The reason why Adam wants to meet with Dr. Stein is to tell the scientist that he found out that the skin of clones doesn’t get burned by sunlight because clones’ skin has “augmented pigmentation.” Adam wants to team up with Dr. Stein to figure out a way to transfer this type of skin protection to humans through chip technology, in order to make it safe for humans to go outside in daylight again, without having to wear hazmat suits. Dr. Stein is somewhat intrigued, but he’s reluctant to start doing scientific work again because he’s on some kind of government watch list. Dr. Stein suggests that Adam focus on getting a new heart.

One of the many plot holes of “LX 2048” is it never explains (probably because it’s so hard to believe) that Adam is the only person in this world who has figured out that clones’ skin doesn’t burn. It’s something that would’ve been discovered by many people and many clones already, based on how many clones have been living among humans in this world. And certainly, if Dr. Stein is so “brilliant” and the “godfather of human cloning,” he would have been one of the first people to know that clones’ skin could not get burned by sunlight. Dr. Stein wouldn’t need some random tech worker to tell him that, years after human clones were invented.

A more critical problem with “LX 2048” is that it overstuffs the movie with too many plots going on at the same time. There’s Adam’s terminal illness. There’s his marital discord. There’s his obsession with chip technology. There’s his quest to get Dr. Stein to work with him. And there’s a constant reference to this dystopian world having a serious addiction problem with people who are hooked on LX.

It’s a lot to try to pack in a 103-minute movie, unless the screenplay is well-written. Unfortunately, “LX 2048” isn’t a well-written movie, and it often loses its focus by trying to cover all of these plots. As a result, character development suffers. Adam, the main character, isn’t very likable or even a strongly unlikable anti-hero. He’s just mainly forgettable.

It seems as if writer/director Guy Moshe wants to make Adam sympathetic and heartbroken over Adam’s failed marriage, but Adam’s decision to choose virtual reality (in other words, fake relationships) over his own marriage with his real wife automatically will turn a lot off a lot of viewers from Adam. People aren’t going to be on Adam’s self-pity party train just because he’s been diagnosed with a terminal disease, when his actions show that he can be extremely self-centered and prone to temper tantrums that are bad enough that his estranged wife has a restraining order against him.

It’s also problematic the way that women are written in this movie. Reena is the only human woman in the story with a significant speaking role. The rest of the women with dialogue in the movie are either clones or are virtual-reality creations—in other words, they have no souls. If you were to believe what this movie presents as what a futuristic world looks like, only men are the leaders when it comes to science and new technology, and women have made no important contributions in these areas.

And even though Adam isn’t a great husband, Reena isn’t a great spouse either. She’s a bit of a shrew who seems money-hungry over Adam’s life-insurance policy and what Adam’s death would mean for her household income, since she’s a homemaker who doesn’t want any other job. To her credit, Reena seems to be more caring than Adam when it comes to protecting their children from the mean-spirited arguments that she and Adam have. However, Reena doesn’t seem very concerned that their kids are so addicted to technology that she doesn’t tell them to “disconnect” so they can spend quality time with their father when he comes to visit.

Dr. Stein isn’t in the movie very long, Adam doesn’t seem to work with any people outside of virtual reality, he doesn’t have any friends, and so viewers are stuck with mainly Adam and Reena (two unpleasant people) for most of the movie. After a while, viewers won’t really care much about what happens to Adam, Reena or this ex-couple’s miserable relationship. “LX 2048” has some interesting visual effects and set designs to depict this futuristic world, but nothing in this movie will be nominated for any major awards.

D’Arcy gives it his all in trying to portray Adam as a complex and flawed character. But unfortunately, the last few scenes in the movie are played in such an over-the-top manner, so that what started out as a serious sci-fi drama devolves into a soap opera. Sometimes, a movie’s plot holes can be forgiven if the characters are charismatic enough and the story is engaging enough for viewers to feel some kind of emotional connection. Unfortunately, “LX 2048” is so concerned with trying to dazzle the audience with sci-fi concepts that the people in the movie are as emotionally hollow as the human clones.

Quiver Distribution released “LX 2048” on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ starring Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman and Mélanie Thierry

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Jonathan Majors in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Da 5 Bloods”

Directed by Spike Lee

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Vietnam, the drama “Da 5 Bloods” has a racially diverse cast (African American, Asian and white) portraying the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Four African American men who are Vietnam War veterans return to Vietnam with one of the men’s sons to find a hidden stash of gold bars, and they confront issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loyalty, greed and the cultural wounds left by the war.

Culture Audience: “Da 5 Bloods” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted dramas about friendships bound by trauma, but sensitive viewers might be disturbed by the film’s significant level of bloody violence.

Johnny Trí Nguyên, Clarke Peters and Delroy Lindo in “Da 5 Bloods” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

Spike Lee’s sprawling epic drama “Da 5 Bloods” takes viewers on a thrilling, heartbreaking and absorbing ride that will reel you in, shake you up, and leave you feeling uplifted and solemn at the same time by the end of the movie. Simply put: “Da 5 Bloods” is one of writer/director Lee’s best films of the 21st century. Delroy Lindo gives a masterful performance that will stay with people long after watching “Da 5 Bloods.”

The plot to “Da 5 Bloods” is pretty simple, but there are many complexities that weave the story together. It’s the type of movie that people might feel compelled to see more than once to revisit all the story’s layers. The movie clocks in at 155 minutes (or two hours and 35 minutes), but every minute is worth it.

In “Da 5 Bloods,” four African American men who were Army buddies in the Vietnam War return to Vietnam to find the hidden treasure they left behind back in 1971—a safe filled with gold bars that they were entrusted to deliver on behalf of the U.S. government but the pals decided to keep the gold for themselves. The safe got lost in a plane crash and a mudslide, but there’s a chance that they could find the gold again.

The four men are Paul (played by Lindo), a politically conservative curmudgeon who’s suffering from PTSD and refuses to get treatment for it; Otis (played by Clarke Peters), a friendly medic who has a possible addiction to Oxycontin pills; Melvin (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a fun-loving jokester who’s married but has an eye for other women; and Eddie (played by Norm Lewis), a well-to-do businessman who’s made his money through several car dealerships.

All four men are haunted by the Vietnam War death of their squad leader Stormin’ Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman, who appears in the movie’s flashback scenes), who was the fifth member of their group and the one who inspired them the most. The five men called themselves Da 5 Bloods. The surviving members all say that they have dreams about Stormin’ Norman, who died a hero in the plane crash. The four surviving members of the group are hoping to find the remains of Stormin’ Norman, so that he can get a proper burial.

Soon after they arrive at their hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s clear that Paul is the most emotionally volatile one of the group. He makes racist and dismissive comments about the local Vietnamese people, and he has a quick temper. While having dinner at the hotel, a boy with one leg wanders in and goes over to their table to beg for money. Paul tries to shoo the boy away, but Otis compassionately gives $20 to the boy.

Paul, who is a unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, gripes: “It’s time we got those freeloading immigrants off of our backs and build that wall.” Otis, Eddie and Melvin don’t like Trump at all, but their political differences with Paul don’t drive a wedge between the four friends. Paul likes to wears a red Make America Great Again baseball cap (which was the Trump campaign’s signature apparel item for the 2016 U.S. presidential election), and that cap is used as a metaphor in different parts of the story.

After the four friends spend the night partying at a nightclub and drinking at a bar, Paul goes back to his hotel room to find a surprise: His son David (played by Jonathan Majors), an African American studies teacher, has unexpectedly shown up, and Paul is furious about it. Paul makes it clear that not only does he not want David there, but he also doesn’t want David in his life at all.

“You ain’t been nothing but an anchor around my neck since the day you were born,” Paul cruelly tells David. Why does Paul dislike David so much? That answer is revealed later in the movie. Majors gives an outstanding performance as David, who is desperate for his father’s love but is trying to hold on to his masculine dignity in seeking his dad’s love and approval.

Even though Paul doesn’t seem to want anything to do with his son, David isn’t going to leave. David tells Paul that he found out about the treasure hunt and that he wants to help. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that for David, this trip isn’t about finding the gold. It’s about trying to connect with his father, who goes out of his way to express his animosity toward David. This stressful father-son relationship is truly one of the most compelling aspects of “Da 5 Bloods,” and it will leave many viewers in tears during certain scenes.

Meanwhile, Otis has taken on the role of a surrogate father figure to David, as well as the group’s peacemaker when conflicts inevitably happen. Otis is also the one who leads the planning of the treasure hunt, since he has figured out the coordinates of where the plane might be, based on satellite photos.

Otis has enlisted the help of an ex-lover named Tiên (played by Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who now works in international exports. Tiên has assisted Otis in arranging a meeting with one of her contacts: a shady businessman named Desroche (played by Jean Reno), who promises that he can give the treasure hunters a way to convert the gold to American funds without them getting caught. In exchange, Desroche will get a percentage of the money as his fee.

It’s a deal that has to be made on trust, because none of Da 5 Bloods knows Desroche personally, since he was recommended by Tiên. Paul is the most suspicious of Desroche, because he thinks it’s possible that Desroche will try to double-cross them and steal the money for himself. Paul also tells Otis that he doesn’t really trust Tiên either. During an argument with Otis, Paul also accuses Otis of the possibility that Otis and Tiên are secretly in cahoots with each other to steal the money.

And what about that gold treasure? A flashback scene shows when Da 5 Bloods decided to keep the gold, Stormin’ Norman made a pledge to donate the money to the Black Liberation movement: “We repossess this gold for every black boot that never made it home, for every brother and sister stolen from mother Africa to Jamestown, Virginia, way back in 1619.”

“Da 5 Bloods” makes an unusual and bold artistic move for the flashback scenes. Instead of having younger actors portraying the young Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie, the movie keeps the same actors for these roles in which they have to portray the characters as their younger selves. There are also no visual effects that de-age the actors in the flashback scenes. By not changing the physical age of the actors in the flashback scenes, it actually creates the sense that although they have physically aged when they remember this time in their lives, there’s a part of them that is still mentally trapped in their Vietnam War days.

But in the present day, the surviving members of the group have mixed feelings about that pledge. Paul is the one who unapologetically says that he wants to keep his share of the money for himself, while Eddie still wants to hold true to the promise that they made with Stormin’ Norman to donate the money toward causes that empower African Americans. The dilemma of greed versus philanthropy causes major friction with the characters during different parts of the story. If people want to read more into it, the gold and what to do with it are metaphors for the conflicting ideals of capitalism and socialism.

Before their big trip to the jungle, the five men spend some time in a restaurant/bar. While there, David meets a French woman named Hedy Bouvier (played by Mélanie Thierry), who works for nonprofit organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (LAMB). As part of her job, she looks for old land mines and detonates them. Two of her co-workers—an American named Scott (played by Paul Walter Hauser) and a Finnish man named Seppo (played by Jasper Pääkkönen)—are also in the bar.

David and Hedy are immediately attracted to each other and they begin flirting and talking about their lives. Hedy says that she and Seppo “occasionally use each other for sex,” but she makes it clear that she’s single and available. And so is David.

For the treasure hunters’ trip to the jungle, they have a local guide named Vinh Tran (played by Johnny Trí Nguyên), who is easygoing and knowledgeable, but  Vinh isn’t told the real reason for the trip. During a boat ride, a middle-aged Vietnamese man tries to sell Paul a live chickens and refuses to take no for answer. Paul gets so angry that he begins yelling and threatening the man, who accuses Paul of killing his parents because African American men in Vietnam are assumed to be American military men.

The accusation triggers Paul into an emotional meltdown, where his PTSD is on full display. It’s during this breakdown that he confesses that his dreams about Stormin’ Norman are really nightmares. There are several scenes in “Da 5 Bloods” that are disturbing close-ups of Paul’s mental deterioration. And his relationship with estranged son David also takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster.

One of the striking technical aspects of “Da 5 Bloods” is how the flashback scenes are filmed by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. The scenes are shot as if they’re news film from the late 1960s/early 1970s, with 16mm and 4:3 aspect ratio. When the movie switches back to the present day, the scenes are in 2:40 aspect ratio before they go to the jungle. And for the scenes in the jungle, the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio, to portray an environment which is wide open to the possibilities of the unknown.

It wouldn’t be a Spike Lee film without social commentary as part of the story. Lee and Kevin Willmott (who both won adapted screenplay Oscars for “BlacKkKlansman”) wrote “Da 5 Bloods” screenplay with Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo. The movie has plenty to say about race relations, colonialism and civil rights, not just in the United States but also in Vietnam.

“Da 5 Bloods” also makes blistering observations about how the Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a fully racially integrated military, which meant that more African Americans were on the front lines to die, compared to previous American wars. And although Vietnam War veterans of all races experienced divisive and painful reactions when they returned home, African American veterans had the added burden of racism in trying to adjust back to civilian society.

Throughout the film, there are snippets of African American history lessons to put much of the movie’s story in context. The beginning of the film opens with a montage of archival footage of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale talking about the Vietnam War and/or the American government. And there’s mention of war hero Milton Olive III (who died in 1965 at the age of 18),  the first African American man to be award the Medal of Honor for the Vietnam War.

Lee’s best movies are known for their memorable soundtracks. “Da 5 Bloods” is no exception. Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album “What’s Going On” is prominently featured. And so is the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” which seems to be a staple in movies that have themes of African American empowerment, just like the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” seems to be in a lot of mobster movies. Music composer Terence Blanchard, a longtime collaborator of Lee’s, once again does a great score that enhances the essence of each scene.

“Da 5 Bloods” also includes striking and often brutal archival photos and videos to show the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War, such as the American protests against the war; combat footage; and disturbing photos of people being murdered and children’s bloody corpses. The last half of the film, which primarily takes place in the jungle, is especially gruesome with gun shootouts and other bloody mayhem.

However, whatever violence is in the film is a manifestation of the emotional horrors the characters feel in trying to face personal demons. That psychological turmoil is the biggest gut-punch in “Da 5 Bloods.” People can try to avoid bullets and bombs, but they can’t run away from themselves.

Netflix premiered “Da 5 Bloods” on June 12, 2020.

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