Following four Vietnam veterans’ present-day return to the jungle in pursuit of a gold cache, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods crosses a socially incensed Sierra Madre with Lee’s own Miracle at St. Anna (minus the magical realism or the middle finger to Clint Eastwood concerning stories about black World War II soldiers). Bloods shares Anna’s sleek feel for action — a muscle Lee rarely flexes but does with force — and a slight streak of woolliness in the way it shows how little the world’s woes have really changed. Lee may have wielded his time-flattening sledgehammer of commentary with more confidence in Malcolm X and BlacKkKlansman. But it’s easy to forgive the occasional missteps of someone continually called to emphasize racial history’s repetitions and rhymes in the hope that it might inspire someone to make a change.
There’s certainly no shortage of fascinating ideas duking it out across this 155-minute running time, and even the subtitles have finally caught up to Lee’s sense of showmanship. (Every Word Begins With A Capital Letter And Gold Is Shaded In Its Appropriate Color.) Although there are moments where the movie’s tension distances itself from Lee’s larger notions — and simply bites into pulpier fruits of escapist fare — Da 5 Bloods never fails to compel.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) are the surviving members of their Vietnam squadron. A half-century after their tours of duty, the quartet has reassembled in Vietnam to find and return the remains of their fallen squad leader, Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman). Or at least that’s the official reason.
Prior to a fateful firefight, the squad buried bars of gold it recovered from the crashed fuselage of a plane en route to bequeath payment to Vietnamese spies in exchange for intelligence. Their plan? To return one day, recover the gold and split it five ways as reparation for the racial vacuum in which they found themselves. These aren’t just five guys mooning over a potential windfall. These are five black men who, when no such purpose and meaning about their American home seemed readily apparent stateside, went overseas to seek it. All they found was a new dimension of a timeworn lie, which only widened after the survivors came home and created a chasm that kept them from acting on their gold-seeking pact until much later in life.
Lee makes these men’s elegies and oratorios crackle with evocative life — especially in the “Black G.I.” sequence, featuring Veronica Ngo as the real-life Hanoi Hannah — and is ably assisted by Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography, which shifts from 2.39:1 widescreen to boxy 1.33:1 framing and 16mm film for the war flashbacks. These sequences seamlessly infuse agitprop into the combat action and also benefit from neither recasting Lindo, Peters, Lewis and Whitlock with younger actors nor digitally de-aging them alongside Boseman. Lee has said that Netflix didn’t provide the money necessary for digital alterations. But leaving the actors be illustrates the way their characters see themselves — forever trapped there, looking as they might today … only with a bit less gray.
Their sexagenarian status is among a number of complications for these friends’ return to the jungle, the physical betrayals ranging from pigeon-toed awkwardness to an over-reliance on painkillers. More devious duplicity could await from Desroche (Jean Reno) and Tiên (Lê Y Lan), who have the necessary connections to transport their gold … for a cut. Finally, Paul’s suspicious son, David (Jonathan Majors) has hacked his dad’s email (easy when the password is 1234) and turns up in hopes of heading off the plan. Paul and David’s estrangement is thick and complicated, but David relents so long as he can tag along and keep watch — much to Paul’s consternation. Once the five men hit the jungle, Sigel opens the canvas up to a full 1.85:1 ratio; in other words, they’re visually swallowed up before they even take the first treacherous step. (These shifting aspect ratios also suggest more than time shifts and transitions, perhaps even into an artifice that puts a potentially pessimistic slant on the ending Lee has concocted, similar to his majestic and monolithic 25th Hour.)
There are times when it’s easy to get tetchy with Da 5 Bloods. An interlude at a riverside bar feels like how a Netflix series might adapt the Apocalypse Now plantation sequence. That passage awkwardly introduces three deceptively disposable characters, played by Mélanie Thierry and Klansman alums Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen, whose eventual utility becomes glaringly obvious. And because the streamer’s algorithm always lurks, the men’s interpersonal squabbles about financial obligations come to resemble Triple Frontier, last year’s Netflix’s film about hotheads humping through the jungle with riches. (At least Bloods eschews Frontier’s classic-rock obviousness in favor of Marvin Gaye, whose songs are so prominent a beacon as to warrant an end-credit mention.)
There are also occasional oddities, such as Whitlock re-enacting his signature “Sheeeeee-it” from his most famous role in an unnecessary flourish. And when David responds “overstood” to a question of whether he understands, the word could apply to Bloods’ third-act vocalization of subtextual forever-war ideas we already understand by that point. The feather touch has rarely been Lee’s point, nor should it be, but he’s already done enough for us to absorb his ideas.
Oh, but the volume of those ideas. Da 5 Bloods is suffused with so many smart, substantive suggestions about the story it chooses to tell that course correction is never far away. The shibboleths of savagery and how slowly they fade constitute Lee’s fascination here, having rewritten Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo’s initial script with his Klansman and Chi-Raq co-writer Kevin Willmott. In Da 5 Bloods, the Vietnam War has been forgotten as a geopolitical conflict and emphatically embodied as a powerful engine of American division that has been rebuilt time and again. Whatever recollections of the war remain in the larger Vietnamese culture we see amount to commodified kitsch. But we also experience the madness that ensues whenever someone pokes through this paper-thin layer of monetary mediation. None of the characters literally killed any of the others’ mothers, fathers, sisters or brothers, but they pulled triggers and that makes them complicit.
Bloods also showcases the greatest performance in any of Lee’s films since Denzel Washington in Malcolm X. The first thing we learn about Paul is that he voted for “President Fake Bone Spurs.” And while there are the expected jokes afterward, the script never trolls Paul. It’s hardly apolitical — after all, this is a Spike Lee Joint — but it’s also not the easy assignment of agitation that you might expect. Without underlines or excuses, Lee and Willmott let us see how Paul misplaced this political trust by devoting a good chunk of its time to psychologically probing Paul’s fear and desperation over loss of control that has plagued him since the war. He’s a man whose entire emotional response has been permanently pounded into paranoia beyond all measure of practicality. A reliable character actor for numerous decades, Lindo delivers a revelatory turn in the lead role of a man irreversibly hobbled by shame, rage and their irrational, erratic byproducts — especially the bleakly curdled love for his son. There’s a monologue during which Lindo’s face fills the screen in a way that bores a hole right through you, and Paul’s discovery of forgiveness that has eluded him — a crucible of fixation forged by societal forces larger than him or any of us — is the film’s emotional apex. Quite simply, Lindo owns Da 5 Bloods in a way you’ll never forget.
This might not be Lee’s most focused and fully realized wellspring of wrath for racial wrongdoing. But the unexpectedly topical conclusion of Da 5 Bloods is a cage-rattler — establishing a poetic meter of discord somewhere between Make America Great Again and “Let America Be America Again.” As a lament for places and people who have only known loss and lethality, it might be uneven. It may be unwieldy. But it’s also unmistakably Spike Lee.