Tony (tectactoe)’s review published on Letterboxd:
Love orange juice. Love red wine. Love coffee. How they’d taste blended into a single cocktail, however, is making me nauseous just to think about. This plays like a three-for-one deal: A typical Spike Lee boyz-bein’-boyz joint that sharply contorts to an underwritten, Tarantinoesque descent into bedlam, all while a forced political essay keeps jutting in at random moments. I might’ve been more receptive had Lee devoted total focus to one and only one of these physiques, or at least been more mindful of how to distribute them efficiently, but at two and a half hours, this is simply too much movie for its own good. (Though it runs one whole hour shorter, it felt significantly longer than e.g. THE IRISHMAN.) Lee serve up an unforgiving political statement, a neo-war/action flick, and a brotherhood drama on the same platter, and frankly my appetite ain’t that damn big, nor are his juggling skills sharp enough to keep from dropping a few balls. It let me with the constant heartache of having each thoughtful gambit subsequently or simultaneously undermined by something obnoxious, novice, or ill-considered.
For example, Lee’s refusal* to artificially de-age the crew during the Vietnam flashbacks was perfect, because not only was I not distracted by the inevitable imperfections of this CGI technique (as I was in, again, THE IRISHMAN—digitally re-rendering faces is one thing, but older people move differently, too, you know), but it provided a clever incision about the film’s theme of memory and how a war will never leave it—these guys are reliving their wartime tragedy, over and over again, both figuratively and, thanks to these scenes, literally. They have grown older, but their fallen brother, Norman, has not; he continues to live on in their heads as they last remember him. Further, the decision to shoot those scenes in a bunched 1.33:1 aspect ratio was equally successful (though I’m not sure why the movie’s present-day scenes begin in 2.39:1 and switch to 1.85:1 in the jungle?), effectively construing them as relics of the past. Unfortunately, Lee’s utilization of geometry and space is unfit for combat of any sort, and the battles therein are incomprehensible and messy beyond reproach. His pen is decisively heavy, too—when David happens to stumble upon a French woman who happens to have selflessly devoted her life to finding and removing still-active landmines in Vietnam, was there anyone on the planet who didn’t immediately suspect that one of our comrades would succumb to such an unfortunate fate? (If that didn’t tip it off, the scene where it actually occurs is shot in such a way that leaves no doubt that some pivotal event is seconds away.) And then there are a ton of implications that would necessitate gigantic detours in any other film, but merely come-and-go here: The Frenchman’s involvement with the neo-VC, Otis’s surprising discovery, and hell, even Eddie’s aforementioned demise is brushed off as nothing more than an unnecessary precursor to David’s thrilling predicament.
Love eccentric touches like the a cappella Marvin Gaye tracks (straddling sequences with decidedly adjacent moodiness) or the unexpectedly tense escalation amid the floating market. But I’m more distressed at being unsmitten by the stuff everyone else keeps raving about e.g. Lindo is uniformly solid, but a bit strained and predictable if I’m being honest. And while his borderline-psychotic rant into the camera presents a high-spot of the individual performance, the scene’s Brechtian approach is galvanic in a way that accentuates and confirms the movie’s sloppiness. I could go on and on and still wouldn’t be close to touching on the smorgasbord of things that Spike attempts to tackle here, and that’s a big part of the problem. In three words: Impassioned but unwieldy.
*It only came to my attention after-the-fact that Lee indeed wanted computerized de-aging but was advised against it by the producers—meaning Netflix, I think, for what I assume would be budgetary reasons?—which throws a wrench in my idea that the old men assuming their former positions in the flashbacks is meant to reflect a projection of memory…but as Bob Ross might say, I consider that a “happy accident.”