Spike Lee has been one of America’s most important and prolific filmmakers for over 30 years, but like all directors with long and diverse careers, he has experienced various levels of critical and commercial success. Prior to 2018, his last major box office success was 2006’s heist thriller Inside Man, but the success of Blackkklansman was a very welcome reminder of Lee’s immense gift as both a fiery social commentator and consummate cinematic craftsman. For his next movie, Lee has teamed up with Netflix to deliver the sprawling and powerful drama Da 5 Bloods.
Lee has often used real-life documentary footage to give his movies a social and historical context, and Da 5 Bloods is no different. It begins with a clip of Mohammand Ali in 1978, explaining to reporters why he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, followed by newsreel footage taking us through the timeline of the war, with focus on the disproportionate numbers of African American soldiers who were sent to fight in South East Asia. The film then cuts to the present day and introduces its four main characters–Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.). The quartet served together in Vietnam, along with the “fifth blood,” Norm (Chadwick Boseman), who never made it home. During a tour in 1971 they discovered a case of gold bars in a crashed helicopter that was intended to pay the Vietnamese who stood up against the Viet Cong. Knowing that there was no way to take the gold out during the war, the quintet buried it, intending to return after the conflict to claim it. 40 years later, the old friends reconvene in Ho Chi Minh City and head back into the jungle to honor their fallen colleague and find the gold.
Da 5 Bloods started life as a more conventional action adventure by Rocketeer screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, before Lee and his Blackkklansman collaborator Kevin Willmott reworked it from an African-American perspective. The result is a long movie–155 minutes–and despite the simplicity of the plot, there’s a lot to it in terms of both the narrative and the themes it addresses. On the most obvious level it’s a heist thriller that takes influence from John Huston’s classic western The Treasure of Sierra Madre. It’s also a war movie, with flashbacks throughout to the Bloods’ time in ‘Nam. It’s a moving but often funny character study, about four old friends reconnecting with each other and forced to confront some dark truths about their time in Vietnam. And, being a Spike Lee Joint, it’s a searing political film that addresses America’s involvement in foreign conflicts and the price the black community paid for a war that many felt they should not have been involved in–not to mention some very topical references to Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a whole lot of movie.
In less experienced hands, this could have easily become a confused, tonally inconsistent experience. But Lee is a master at making engrossing, accessible films that also deal with weighty themes, and one of the most impressive things about Da 5 Bloods is the way that no one element undercuts any other.
Lee is helped immeasurably by his cast. All four leads are tremendous, their ease and familiarity with each other immediately convincing us that they have known each other most of their lives. Lindo, who also appeared in Lee movies such as Clockers and Crooklyn, is the standout. The de facto leader of the group, Paul, is tormented by memories of his time in ‘Nam and the arrival of his estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) to join the group on their mission only adds to his unravelling mental state. One of Lee’s cinematic trademarks is to give his actors direct-to-camera monologues, and towards the end he uses this technique to provide Lindo with some incredibly powerful scenes.
While Boseman’s screentime is more limited, he’s perfectly cast as the almost-mythical Norm, whose charisma, intelligence, and fearlessness inspired his comrades back in the early ’70s, and whose death affects them to this day. Lee makes a fascinating and ultimately successful decision about how to portray the characters during the flashback sequences too. Instead of recasting the roles with younger actors–or even using the CGI de-aging techniques that Scorsese did in The Irishman–the director simply puts the older actors in these scenes, with no attempt to make them look younger. It’s strange and slightly comical at first, but the more we get to know these men, the more it makes sense in terms of character continuity to see the same actors throughout. Ultimately it’s far less distracting than the uncanny valley of the elderly de-aged stars of The Irishman.
There are numerous other subplots and characters along the way, including Otis reuniting with a Vietnamese woman he knew years ago, a trio of young activists defusing landmines in the jungle, and an enjoyably villainous performance from veteran French star Jean Reno, who plays a shady businessman that the Bloods must use to get the gold out of Vietnam. Despite the movie’s length, some of these secondary characters seem underdeveloped, and the thriller plot follows many of the conventions of the genre, as mistrust spreads throughout the group. The film is also very melodramatic, with Terrence Blanchard’s sweeping score and the classic protest songs of Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield leaving little room for ambiguity about what emotions we should be feeling.
Lee has never been a filmmaker known for his subtlety–even his best movies can be accused of being occasionally too long, too obvious, and too melodramatic. But this is also what can make him such a compelling and crowd-pleasing director. Da 5 Bloods is a big film in every sense–the length, the performances, the drama, the thrills, the action, and the message. The final montage features moments that feel incredibly relevant for what is happening in America–and around the world–right now. But this is true of many of the movies in Lee’s filmography, and anyone who saw this month’s devastating short film 3 Brothers will know how sadly prescient his earlier work can be. Da 5 Bloods works superbly as a thrilling action adventure, but it’s the way it also confronts uncomfortable truths about America’s past (and present) that makes it one of the director’s best films.