Review: Spike Lee’s furiously alive ‘Da 5 Bloods’ follows four Black veterans back to Vietnam
Toward the end of “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s big, brash and rightly furious sprawl of a movie, a character offers one of those grand summations so obvious that you may wonder why it needs to be said: “After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends.” That much has been clear enough during this sweeping, harrowing adventure saga, which takes place in contemporary Vietnam but is never far removed from the unspeakable traumas of half a century earlier.
The protagonists, played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis, are U.S. Army vets who have returned to this country nearly 50 years later on a personal mission. They experience intense flashbacks to their tours of duty, some triggered by PTSD and some by narrative expedience. (Lee and Kevin Willmott wrote the screenplay, which is based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo.) The war and its consequences are etched in the present-day faces we see, from the market vendor still anguished over his slain parents to the group of aging ex-Viet Cong who at one point buy our heroes a drink.
But the Vietnam of the past and present is not the movie’s only designated conflict zone. Not unlike “Miracle at St. Anna,” Lee’s 2008 reckoning with World War II, “Da 5 Bloods” seeks to draw critical attention to America’s long, shameful history of exploiting and disenfranchising its Black servicemen. But its outrage doesn’t end there. For the better part of 2½ hours, its characters keep up a steady stream of chatter — boisterous, indignant and rarely subtle — that carries distressing echoes of our own current national discourse on systemic racism, police brutality and the Trump presidency.
Not exactly escapist entertainment, in other words. But here Lee reminds us — as he did in his recent, galvanizing “BlacKkKlansman” — that his notorious powers of provocation are inextricable from his often under-appreciated skills as a storyteller. You could call “Da 5 Bloods” the victim of bad timing after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Netflix to cancel its planned theatrical release; you could also call it exceptionally well timed, since its political anger feels so urgent that it can scarcely be contained by the parameters of a TV screen. What’s notable is the way in which Lee, equally steeped in American history and classic Hollywood, translates that anger cinematically, refracting it through a series of durable storytelling prisms.
The production materials invoke Conradian epics like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and “Apocalypse Now,” though less classic-minded scholars might think of it as “Last Flag Flying” with a dash of Rambo. Whichever formulation you prefer, “Da 5 Bloods” — full of fiery combat footage and shifting aspect ratios, cynical tough talk and big, sweeping emotions — strives mightily to find a dramatic balance worthy of it. In this it is not always graceful, but then how could it be? It is by turns a platoon picture, a heist thriller, a Black history lesson and a grumpy-old-men rendezvous, all spliced together with documentary footage, a surging Terence Blanchard score and a soundtrack that supplements “Ride of the Valkyries” with welcome blasts of Marvin Gaye.
But if this is Lee’s reclamation of the Vietnam War movie, it also marks a kind of elegiac reunion between him and a few actors he has worked with in the past, particularly Lindo and Whitlock. The aging Bloods we meet early on in Ho Chi Minh City include Melvin (Whitlock), a family man and a fount of warm comic relief, and Eddie (Lewis), the genial figurehead of a lucrative car-dealership empire. The mastermind of their trip is Otis (Peters), a shrewd, cool-headed operator who finds time to drop in on Tiên (Lê Y Lan), a local businesswoman he knew during the war.
And then there’s Paul (Lindo), a widower with a short fuse and an estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), who has unexpectedly tagged along for the trip. For Paul, who dominates the group physically and emotionally, postwar life has been a series of brutal losses and disappointments. And Lindo — in his first Spike Lee joint since the knockout ’90s trio of “Malcolm X,” “Crooklyn” and “Clockers” — does sweaty, seething justice to a man who emerges as the toughest member of this small, world-weary battalion and also the most vulnerable.
Paul’s anguish is rooted in the loss of the Bloods’ beloved leader, affectionately known as “Stormin’ Norman,” who was killed in combat in 1971. In flashbacks to that fateful tour of duty, Norman (“Black Panther’s” Chadwick Boseman) is shown setting the plot in motion when he and his four comrades recover a large stash of gold bars on a downed plane, one that was originally sent by the U.S. to secure the allegiance of Lahu fighters against the Viet Cong. The Bloods have other plans for it. Infuriated by a war that has taken a cruelly disproportionate toll on Black soldiers, compounding the loss of Black lives in the civil rights movement, they bury the gold and vow to return for it later so that it can benefit their communities back home. (Much of their rationale is laid out in a dense audiovisual montage featuring the North Vietnamese radio propagandist known to U.S. servicemen as “Hanoi Hannah,” played here by Veronica Ngo.)
And so as the four surviving Bloods head back downriver and into the jungle (in casually stunning long-take sequences shot by Newton Thomas Sigel), “Da 5 Bloods” becomes a rare Hollywood hybrid: a treasure hunt that hinges on a case for reparations. And as the movie makes clear, this particular brand of retribution will be as difficult to achieve as it is long overdue. Twists of fate have delayed the Bloods’ trip for decades. Finding the bullion will be hard; smuggling it out will be even harder. A Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyễn), helps the Bloods on their journey, even as his insights into the war’s devastating local toll — and the U.S.’ role in perpetuating it — keeps their sense of righteousness in check. Their other potential allies and adversaries include a smug profiteer (Jean Reno) and a trio of humanitarian workers (played by Mélanie Thierry and the “BlacKkKlansman” duo of Jasper Pääkkönen and Paul Walter Hauser) who specialize in clearing old land mines.
In his new Netflix film ‘Da 5 Bloods,’ Spike Lee serves up a timely look at the ways America’s racial wounds have continued to fester.
For their part, Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie are longtime buddies who often find themselves at odds with one another. And Lee, never one to subscribe to a monolithic ideal of Black masculinity, explodes stereotypes with his usual aplomb. (One of the Bloods wears a MAGA hat.) Much of the pleasure of the movie comes from the men’s nonstop grousing, and if the arguments sometimes seem rigged or overblown, they are rarely under-felt. There are complaints about hip cramps and mosquitoes. There are campfire reckonings, sudden betrayals and tearjerking plot turns, including one that throws Paul and David’s long-running Sturm und Drang into sharp relief.
And eventually there are drawn guns, raised knives and eruptions of violence that jolt the men and the audience out of their complacency. The tonal shifts can be so abrupt as to induce whiplash, not to mention a kind of moral and narrative chaos, which seems to be very much to the movie’s point. The rich, tumultuous history of Black life over the past century could certainly find a worse cinematic analogue than this heady swirl of wry comedy, seductive music, ferocious argument and devastating carnage. And Lee continually calls our attention back to that history, not only with video clips of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, but also with cutaways to Black men like Milton L. Olive III, who was only 18 when he gave his life for his country in Vietnam.
The intermittent flashbacks offer us a glimpse of Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie when they were closer to Olive’s age. But in perhaps Lee’s most radical touch — and also his most old-fashioned — he has Lindo, Peters, Whitlock and Lewis play those younger versions of themselves, without any attempts to de-age them in the manner of another recent Netflix production, Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” As Lee wryly noted in an interview with the New York Times’ Reggie Ugwu, it was a budgetary decision that turned out to have been the right one. In these actors’ weary faces, incongruously bridging the divide between past and present, we see the most literal possible visualization of a war without end.
‘Da 5 Bloods’
Rating: R, for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes
Playing: Available June 12 on Netflix
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