- Da 5 Bloods
- Directed by Spike Lee
- Written by Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee
- Starring Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters and Chadwick Boseman
- Classification R; 156 minutes
Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is not just one thing. A heist thriller, a full-throttle war movie, an intense character study, a political polemic, a morality tale and a deeply funny dark comedy, Lee’s latest film never pretends to stand still in any single genre’s waters. It is messy, it is incendiary, and it is frustrating. It may not be what you wanted or were promised by the slick and smooth marketing materials provided by Netflix, the streaming giant that is partnering with Lee here for the first time. But Da 5 Bloods is what you need.
Especially this week. Available to stream starting Friday, Da 5 Bloods arrives on the back of a remarkable stretch of North American unrest and anger and catharsis and despair that will be studied for generations. What that lesson might eventually be, I’m not sure. But Lee, as always defiant and furious and uninterested in the weight of expectations, has a good idea, expressed through Da 5 Bloods’s central philosophy: America might be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with America.
Similar to Lee’s most recent film, 2018′s wild but up-and-down BlacKkKlansman, Da 5 Bloods has a flexible relationship with tone and time. Mostly taking place in present-day Vietnam but with frequent and slippery flashbacks to 1971, the film follows four Black war veterans who return to Ho Chi Minh City in order to fulfill two long-held promises, one more noble than the other: to repatriate the body of their fallen comrade, Norman, and to recover a stash of CIA-procured gold bars that the group buried decades earlier after a mission gone awry.
Each of the four vets can be viewed as different shards of the shattered American dream. Eddie (Broadway veteran Norm Lewis) is struggling to maintain an illusion of upward mobility; Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) hides his insecurity by chasing all manner of vices; Otis (Whitlock’s old The Wire co-star Clarke Peters) is hiding a pill addiction, and Paul (Delroy Lindo), the de facto leader of the group since Norman’s KIA passing, has packed up his resentments and disappointments into Donald Trump’s toxic tent, sporting a Make America Great Again ball cap as if it were the sanest option in an insane world.
As the men get deeper into the muck of their mission – encountering all kinds of allies and foes along the way, including a French smuggler straight out of a Graham Greene novel, played with cartoon panache by Jean Reno – Lee contrasts their modern-day anxiety with the 1970s horror that got them there in the first place.
By choosing to both switch up the size of his images – the flashbacks are shot on grainy 16-mm film in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, as circa-1970s television sets would have presented the action, while the contemporary adventure is captured in either widescreen 2.40:1 or the leaner 1.85:1 – and to plunk his leading men in the past with no attempt at de-aging them through CGI or traditional makeup, Lee has made a movie that is keenly aware that it’s, well, a movie.
It is jarring, and more than a little funny, to first see a wrinkled Lindo act as if he’s the same age as the young and strapping Chadwick Boseman, who plays Norman in an extended cameo. But once the conceit is established, without any real wink or nod from Lee, the purpose reveals itself neatly. Like an entire generation of young Black men, Da Bloods never left the battlefield – they started and stopped living there at the same time.
Just as powerful, if less initially gimmick-seeming, is Lee’s decision to frequently inject moments of real-life Black American history into the proceedings, including an opening dissertation on the racist politics of the Vietnam War that will shake and disturb, even for those who know the story well. Between those contextual asides, the soundtracking of Marvin Gaye’s Vietnam-focused album What’s Going On, and myriad allusions and pokes to the canon of war cinema (Apocalypse Now gets the best and worst of it), there is an overwhelming sense of hugeness to Da 5 Bloods. It can feel as generous – in its politics, its performances, its style – as it can overstuffed.
Perhaps many of the film’s problems can be traced to The Last Tour, the name of Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo’s dusty script that Lee and his BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott pulled off the shelf and reworked here, changing the original heroes from white vets to Black men. Maybe that original draft, once intended for director Oliver Stone, is to blame for the thinly sketched French do-gooders who enter the story midway, the unintentionally hilarious departure of one key character or how the film finds a way to make the Viet Cong once again the true enemy.
Lee certainly knows that he’s trading in such clichés. But either he doesn’t care that he’s letting them slip through, or he fails to embrace and then subvert them to an effective degree. As a result, significant chunks of the film – including a ridiculously bloody and lazily choreographed finale – wallow in outright silliness.
More serious, and successful, are the performances that Lee wrings from his cast, stacked with frequent collaborators. Peters, who worked with Lee on 2012′s Red Hook Summer, projects a steely calm that anchors all the swirling violence and chaos. Whitlock Jr., a six-time member of Lee’s unofficial rep company, provides the necessary levity, all while given another chance to deploy his famously not-suited-to-a-newspaper catchphrase from The Wire. And Lindo, in his fourth pairing with the director, is tremendous. He arrives in the film as a towering force of iron-clad authority, and by the end is reduced to a flat, sweaty puddle of a man, melted by a lifetime of trauma.
There will be much discussion over the next few days and weeks about how Da 5 Bloods is accidentally relevant, coincidentally timely. But Lee has been studying America’s original sin and playing this world’s entirely rigged game for all of his long and incredible career. The world catching on fire right at the moment when his latest movie is premiering is both happenstance, and not. If you’re confused, if you’re angry, if you’re nearing the brink, then there are answers out there. Want to know what’s going on? Look to Lee.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix starting June 12
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