Double Feature

Dark Victory June 23, 2020  


On Spike Lee's Da 5 Bloods and Judd Apatow's The King of Staten Island 


a 5 Bloods (2020), a quasi-war movie, has been written and directed by Spike Lee as a clear-eyed response to other entries into the genre. The film is for

one thing a corrective to the sanitized war film (which so often makes misguided use of a good-bad binary) and to the erasure of the contributions of the U.S.’s black soldiers. (Early on, Lee draws attention to the fact that during the Vietnam War, 32 percent of the men fighting were black men — something high-and-mighty movies like 1982’s First Blood ignore, for example.) Da 5 Bloods challenges the straightforward wartime heroism so often invoked in mainstream American discourse, which has for forever been quicker to fawn over one’s “protection” of or “sacrifice” for their country without giving as much weight to imperialism’s overarching ugliness. Such ideas can mess up simple reverence. And the film homes in on the incongruity of a black man fighting for a country that systemically puts him down. Lee,

Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert in 1980's "Loulou."

From left to right: Jonathan Majors, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and Delroy Lindo

though, isn’t making the film an uncritical celebration of the black soldier, even though the feature is certainly a reply to his underrepresentation in cinematic war stories. By the end of Da 5 Bloods, critic Soraya Nadia McDonald recently noted in a review of the film, Lee drives in that ultimately, “there’s no such thing as good American imperialism, even when it’s black.”


The Bloods of the title are a group of black Vietnam War veterans: Paul (an electric Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Witlock, Jr). (The fifth Blood, Norman, is played by Chadwick Boseman; the “Malcolm and Martin” of the group died in combat.)  The film, set in the present-day, is founded on the Bloods’ reunion in Ho Chi Minh City. Their gathering has less to do with a motivation to catch up (they’ve remained close, if not geographically) and more an ambition to close out a chapter in their lives. They are planning to both retrieve Norman’s body for a proper burial and collect a locker of gold bars that was to be used by the CIA way back when to pay Vietnamese allies. (These aspirations turned urgent recently after it was discovered that a landslide had uncovered key landmarks.) 


There is more closure being sought. Paul, who blames himself for Norman’s death, has posttraumatic stress disorder. Never having been able to work through his fury and sadness, he has channeled it into a formless hatred. He is now a Trump supporter (he adorns a worn “Make America Great Again” hat for the bulk of the trip) and has a dicey presence in the life of his now-grown son, David (Jonathan Majors), who accompanies the men later on in the journey. Will this trek tame his demons? Otis is here in part to reunite with his old wartime girlfriend Tiên (Lê Y Lan), with whom he has a child he only finds out about a little into the film. (Tiên, now a successful financial broker, also connects the men with a Jean Reno-portrayed French businessman interested in buying the gold from them.) Eddie, the group’s de facto documentarian (he carries around a 35mm camera), has an interest in the bars mostly because he is in crushing debt. We do not learn much about Melvin — perhaps a tacit way on Lee’s part to say that he has less to work through than his friends.


The first half of the not-a-second-too-long 157-minute-long movie finds the men getting reacquainted with each other and forming some new connections. A relationship that will eventually prove valuable is established with members of an organization called Love Against Mines and Bombs (led by an unflappable Mélanie Thierry), which roves old combat zones to weed out residual booby traps. Present-day scenes are often interrupted by war flashbacks, photographed in 16mm to create some differentiation. In an unusual creative twist, Lee has the four leads playing their younger selves, not only amplifying the reality that war is embedded in these men but also, with the juxtaposition between their wrinkly selves and the far-younger Boseman, how much they have come to deify the frozen-in-time Norman. It is hard to know if the man we see is how he really was or if this is a somewhat rose-colored characterization of him, prettied by fondness and trauma. 


Da 5 Bloods descends into the labyrinthine Vietnamese jungle, where tension escalates not only between the friends but also separate French and Vietnamese camarillas who catch on to what the men are up to and try to usurp their efforts to get the gold for themselves. (This half especially reminds the viewer of 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which a hunt for gold turns into a scary ambush.) The increasing chaos echoes the moral dubiousness perpetuated on all sides during a war. The movie has been neartsightedly compared to some pulpy, more straightforwardly escapist action movies — 2008's Tropic Thunder, 1988's Die Hard, to name a couple. But if Da 5 Bloods resembles any kind of slick action movie, that is only because, to my eye, Lee is necessarily working with one’s familiar aesthetics to remind the viewer how often black people have been erased from, or at least consigned to the background of, those movies. 


There is some victory had at the end of Da 5 Bloods. But it is a victory stamped out with so much bloodshed and loss that it is not meant to feel like a tidy conclusion. It’s an uncertain depiction of forward movement. Things are better than before, sure, but nothing, truly, has been undone, easily solved. Lee’s last movie, BlacKkKlansman (2018), connected to the now by contrasting its main narrative with real-life events. It used footage from the violent 2017 Unite the Right protests in Charlottesville, Va. at its end to suggest how little has changed by way of American racial politics. (The movie was predominately set in the 1970s.) By ending Da 5 Bloods with a Black Lives Matter protest, Lee subliminally makes plain that while the Vietnam War might be over, the war, to paraphrase the critic Richard Brody, of being black in America is not.


he King of Staten Island (2020), the new movie from Judd Apatow, was co-written by and stars Pete Davidson, the young comedian either best known for, depending on your purview, his work on Saturday

Night Live or, for a brief, blissful period in 2018, for being the boyfriend and then temporarily fiancé of the pop star Ariana Grande. Akin to last year’s semi-autobiographical (for co-writer and star Shia LeBeouf) Honey Boy, The King of Staten Island functions as something of a cinematic memoir for its lead. It dramatizes Davidson’s real-life battles with Crohn’s disease, the lingering trauma from his firefighter father’s 9/11 death, and his depression. The feature, though, is ostensibly set in a parallel universe, pondering what might have happened had Davidson not turned to comedy and subsequently found a successful career in it.


In the film, Davidson plays a 24-year-old named Scott who is still living with his mother (Marisa Tomei) on the eponymous Staten Island. He really wants to become a tattoo artist but is having a hard time seeing the ambition through, given his tendency to slack and wallow in his neuroses. The overlong movie (it’s almost two and half hours) is chiefly about Scott’s slow-moving journey toward overcoming (or, at the least, learning how to more healthily cope with) his inner turmoil. Such is boosted by his at-first-rocky relationship with the new firefighter boyfriend of his mother (Bill Burr) and a romance with his long-time “what are we” friend with benefits Kelsey (Bel Powley).


The King of Staten Island ambles, taking its time to show Scott wasting evenings with his similarly developmentally arrested pals and his relationships with his family members, who are growing increasingly frustrated not just with his lack of drive but also his dependence on them as crutches. (Everyone has also unwisely let Scott practice tattooing on them; a friend of his played by Moises Arias has what looks like an entranced baby imprinted on his shoulder.) The movie feels well-worn, and I liked the characters. (In fact I liked Tomei’s and Powley’s characters so much that at times I thought this might have been more engaging a movie had they been at the forefront and Davidson were instead relegated to the foreground. It's a shame they don't serve much purpose beside how they abet Scott.) The King of Staten Island can drag; its arc has a sort of sitcom-esque lift, which isn’t that complementary to bloatedness. But we care about what happens to these people, and the film makes a good case for Davidson, who I long haven’t taken very seriously, as a dramatic actor to take seriously.


Da 5 BloodsA

The King of Staten IslandB