Review: ‘Da 5 Bloods’ Offers Fresh Vietnam War Perspective
By Daniel Rester
There have been a few war films in the past involving gold heists, notably Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999). Spike Lee now throws his hat in that ring with his Netflix original Da 5 Bloods. His picture Inside Man (2006) is a heist flick while his Miracle at St. Anna (2008) is a WWII film, but with Da 5 Bloods Lee takes on both genres with a past and present heist story and a Vietnam setting. It’s an ambitious undertaking.
Da 5 Bloods follows four black Vietnam veterans returning to the east in their old age in order to recover some gold they buried. They also want to find the remains of their fallen comrade “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman, perfectly cast). The group consists of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) also shows up to go along for the ride and hopes to get a cut of the treasure.
Paul is more or less the leader of the group. He’s suffering from PTSD and has a distrust of foreigners; he also voted for Donald Trump for president and wears a MAGA hat because he fell for Trump’s rhetoric and believes he never “got his share” in life. Otis helps set up the gold retrieval operation with help from a past lover and a shady French businessman. Eddie is the wealthy one of the group, helping pay for the hotels, while Melvin is the party lover and occasional comic relief.
Lee’s film opens with a flood of old news footage highlighting different opinions of the Vietnam War. The story then alternates between the present gold hunt and flashbacks with Stormin’ Norman. The present is filmed in a beautifully wide aspect ratio with color that makes Vietnam look exotic. The flashbacks, however, have a boxed-in aspect ratio and a washed-out look. Interestingly, Lee chose to let the same actors playing the elderly veterans fill in the shoes of their younger selves. There is no de-aging or re-casting attempted. This technique is jarring at first but ultimately works as Lee is showing that the war never left these men.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Da 5 Bloods. It’s a lot of movie in one movie, sprawling out with multiple ideas over 154 minutes. Lee keeps his main focus on giving black Americans a point of view on Vietnam (why should they fight for a country that doesn’t love them?), but he also touches on timely things like Black Lives Matter and the current political state of the United States. There’s even a side comment from a character about school shootings.
Despite the runtime and branching narrative, Lee mostly keeps a handle on everything. The film feels shorter than it is and takes a lot of surprising turns. There are some moments of bloody brutality that are shocking, with landmines coming into play. There are also moments of quiet drama that are powerful. Only two turns in the plot really bugged me as they feel really contrived: a character happens to stumble on an object easily and another group of anti-bomb characters happen to show up at an exact time.
The acting is strong all around, but this is Lindo’s show. A great actor, Lindo is one of those men where you know his face in many projects but may not know his name. Hopefully more audiences will pay more attention to him after this. His work as Paul is magnificent and Oscar nomination-worthy. Lindo and Lee make Paul a sad, complex veteren character for the ages.
Da 5 Bloods is fueled by a spot-on Terence Blanchard music score. He hits the highs and lows perfectly. And when he isn’t doing it, a terrific soundtrack is. There’s everything from Marvin Gaye tracks to cuts from Apocalypse Now (1979).
There’s fire in the soul of Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s work is occasionally messy but always compelling. He has given us a fresh and gripping Vietnam War story with a standout lead performance. It’s also very timely, with the current George Floyd protests showing us that not enough has really changed since the ‘60s protests shown in the film.
My Grade: 8.5/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
MPA Rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language)
Running Time: 2h 34min
USA Release Date: June 12th, 2020 (Netflix streaming)