When a filmmaker finds a groove, it can be a beautiful thing. That’s not to say Spike Lee has ever lost his touch. Even his lesser efforts are full of life. Still, whether it’s the repeated collaborations with writer Kevin Willmott, or something else, Da 5 Bloods continues the streak, following Chi-Raq and BlacKkKlansman, as great films and further proof of just how vital Lee’s voice is as a mainstream director exploring black culture. This joint puts its focus on the Vietnam War by way of a modern-day treasure hunt, but the film is not immune to confronting issues plaguing black soldiers then, and still affecting the veterans now.
The story concerns four black Vietnam vets – level-headed Otis (Clarke Peters), successful Eddie (Norm Lews), jokester Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and wild card Paul (Delroy Lindo) – who return to Vietnam in present day on a mission. Heading back into the jungle, the ‘Bloods’ plan to find the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), as well as buried gold once thought to be lost to the shifting terrain. In embarking on such a journey, however, old pains will come back, and new difficulties will arise.
Part of that challenge is having these older men tolerate each other. At the same time, from a character and situation perspective, Lee doesn’t have time for hokey jokes about seniors dealing with being old. Instead, the choice is made to focus on the bond that has held these men together. This also speaks to realistically handling the kinds of lives men like this would lead.
Not unfamiliar to ceding ground to all sides, Lee wisely has Lindo’s Paul play a Trump supporter, in contrast to his fellow Bloods. While the shots are humorously taken early on, the film knows how to take it deeper than just having a man state who he voted for (though Lee has Paul sporting a red MAGA cap for much of the films as well). The more profound point is made in allowing the audience to understand where Paul is coming from. We can see why the gold is important to him, and his philosophies on continuing to live on, following a war that has him still suffering from PTSD. Paul is smart, angry, scared, and unflinching, and Lindo turns in a brilliant performance.
Jonathan Majors (following up a brilliant co-starring turn in The Last Black Man in San Francisco) eventually enters the film as Paul’s son David. Joining the others on the expedition, there’s a purpose to having the concerned, bookish son coming along as well. Being able to explore the dynamic shared between the men means watching an older generation deliberate what the gold could be put towards (reparations or self-interest?), and how to best honor their fallen leader. At the same time, David can intercede with thoughts of his own, and serve as the eyes of those who didn’t have to deal with being drafted.
Throughout the film, which shot in Vietnam and Thailand, Lee doesn’t try to downplay his feelings on the war. An adolescent when it was happening, he was still old enough to watch the first televised war, as well those opposed to it. Now he’s making a film which is bookended by the opinions of Mahammad Ali and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom were openly critical of the war in Vietnam. Additionally, as the men interact with various Vietnamese people, the film wants the viewer to understand both the familiarity they have, as well as a level of discomfort. There are memories on both sides, and sometimes pleasantries only go so far, before talk of once being enemies becomes a key conversation point.
All of this is to say there’s an eventual sense of urgency that brings some excitement to the movie. Sure, Lee is not above having fun with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel as far as coming as close as he can to paying homage to Apocalypse Now and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but things become serious when needed. Thanks to uniformly strong performances from the leads (particularly Lindo, Majors, and Peters), this is a film working well to drop the audience into a comfortable vibe shared between them, before pulling back a layer to reveal the challenge of black Americans attempting to take what’s theirs.
The war element gets its due as well. Thanks to flashbacks signaled by 16mm footage shot in the Academy ratio, there are multiple jumps back in time to show off the heroics of Norman (don’t expect any de-aging of the others, by the way, because Netflix wasn’t giving Lee $100 million). Given his current status as an MCU hero and Hollywood’s walking symbol of black pride, casting Boseman proves to be a genius move on Lee’s part. Norman is the perfect soldier – expertly handling combat, offering knowledge of black history, and even sporting a perfect natural in the jungle, complete with an afro comb sticking out of his hair.
It’s here where one can key into the dark joke of it all, as we are watching men coming back to Vietnam in support of a deceased Norman. Lee makes it clear that even when you are perfect, the black survival rate is still questionable. That makes the overall message of the story more potent, yet there are always shades to the characters worth delving into. At just over two and a half hours, there’s certainly a lot of movie for Lee to work with, and I’d say the time is well spent.
In addition to finding the links making this film relevant to today (Jean Reno was cast for specific reasons), this is a Lee joint, which speaks to the flow of the movie’s theatrics. Serving as another rare step for Lee out of New York, there are impressive visuals to behold throughout. Another Terence Blanchard score does plenty to help set a familiar trumpet-heavy jazzy tone, with the benefit of Marvin Gaye songs to further enrich the viewing experience. Yes, it’s another Lee effort that’s not quite as tidy as it could be, and yet there’s an emotional resolution to it all thanks to a willingness to embrace that padding with great effort from all involved.
Not willing to settle down or hold back on ambition, Da 5 Bloods finds Lee operating on all his high functioning levels. Matching a high concept (Vietnam vets return to Vietnam to hunt for gold) with relevant concerns (do they give the gold away to the black community), Lee’s not coming up short on ways to continue pushing valuable messages amid an exciting adventure and times in need of guidance. He’s also come prepared with a terrific cast and crew to help him deliver. Da 5 Bloods continues a strong run for Lee, and sho nuff, it will have all eyes and ears on it thanks to Netflix.