This week we’ve been in Viet Nam for our movies. Knowing I’d chosen Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, Phil’s choice for Thursday retro night was Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), starring Matthew Modine as recruit Private ‘Joker’ Davies, Lee Ermey as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and Vincent D’Onofrio as Private Gomer Pyle. The first half of the movie deals with the recruits basic training, and the harsh treatment dealt out by the Sergeant in order to toughen up his recruits. Ermey served as a U.S. Marine drill instructor during the Vietnam War and used this experience to ad lib much of his dialogue to great effect. Unfortunately Gomer Pyle is chubby and dim-witted so bears the brunt of Hartmans ruthlessness, and Joker tries hard to help Pyle out. Pyle still doesn’t get things right resulting in the troop turning on Pyle as Hartman punishes the whole troop everytime . Pyle’s mental state deteriorates with tragic results at the end of the first half of the movie. The second part of the movie sees Joker, now a sergeant, deployed to Da Nang where he is a war correspondent for Stars & Stripes, with Private First Class Rafterman, a combat photographer who wants to see action. Joker and Rafterman are sent to join Lusthog Squad in Phu Bai where Joker is reunited with one of his recruit chums ‘Cowboy’ (Arliss Howard) and they end up at the Battle of Hue. They become lost and are pinned down by a Viet Cong Sniper and how they deal with that is the last part of the movie.
Kubrick based his movie on a novel he was impressed with by Gustav Hasford, The Short-Timers, and got Hasford to work the screenplay with him, although they didn’t get on and ended up in a dispute over writing credits. It was all filmed in England though you wouldn’t have guessed. We really enjoyed the movie, especially the first half which was so powerful, with a great performance by Lee Ermey, who is also credited for the dialogue he added. The second half was not as striking but still garnered good performances from Modine, Adam Baldwin playing Animal Mother, a gung-ho machine gunner glory hunter and Arliss Howard. Mixed reviews but mostly positive from the critics, and Kubrick’s direction was lauded for not being his usual over indulgent style.
On to my choice for Saturday night, and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020). This has got a lot of critical acclaim and we were expecting great things for the movie. The plot follows four old black veterans of the Vietnam war, who dubbed themselves ‘Bloods’. Back in the war they had been sent to recover a box of gold earmarked for the Lahu people in payment for their help against the Viet Cong, in a downed cargo plane. The Bloods decide to keep the gold for themselves, to give to the poor people back home, so bury it with a view to retrieving it later. They are attacked by the VC and their leader, Stormin’Norman (Chadwick Bosewick) is killed, a napalm strike wipes out the nearby landmarks and the gold and plane are lost.
In the present day the four survivors Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clark Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) all meet up in Ho Chi Minh City, as a landslide has uncovered the site of the plane, and they want to repatriate Stormin’ Norman’s body and collect the gold. Otis visits a past girlfriend Tien (Lê Y Lan) to gain her help in organising a meeting with Desroche (Jean Reno) a French businessman who will help them smuggle the gold out of Viet Nam. Then Paul’s son David (Johnathon Majors) turns up to help them and it transpires there is a lot of friction between father and son due to Pauls PTSD and how he behaved after returning home from the war. They hire a Vietnamese guide to get them to the jungle, Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen) and off they go. Will stop here so no spoilers.
The movie is very timely as it deals with racism and Lee throws up statistics highlighting the disproportionate ratio of Black men used as cannon fodder in the war, inserting speeches from Martin Luther King, and songs by Marvin Gaye. We had mixed feelings about the movie, on the one hand Lee bashes you over the head with his potent social critique, and on the other, the action is all a bit B-movie. The flashback sequences didn’t work for us, as the old guys are not replaced with younger actors, and not made to look younger (as in The Irishman) but just don’t look right especially with Chadwick Boseman being young and virile as a contrast. Delroy Linden is being hugely acclaimed for his performance as the PTSD angst/guilt ridden Paul, but I was constantly aware he was Acting with a capital A, my favourite performance was from Clark Peters who brought pathos and sincerity to his part as Otis. A thing that made me eyeroll- When Otis visits his ex girlfriend it transpires they have a daughter together, and when he returns to visit them at the end of the movie it is all tears and cuddles and I love you’s from the daughter. Really? a man you’ve never met before or known in any sense and on the first meeting you’re all over him? That was all a bit cliche and Lee is prone to a fair few of those along the way. At 2hrs 34 minutes it could have done with some fine tuning and paring back. In fact I wish he’d made a movie about the black experience in Viet Nam and left out the Gold digging element which was all a bit Boy’s own and overshadowed that part.
Critics were mixed, though generally favourable, my favourite is from Eric Kohn of IndieWire: “A loose, caustic look at the Vietnam war through the prism of black experiences, Da 5 Bloods wrestles with the specter of the past through the lens of a very confusing present, and settles into a fascinated jumble as messy and complicated as the world surrounding its release.”
Factoid- Each of the five main characters share the same first names as the members of The Temptations and their manager Norman Whitfield.