Whether you’re a fan or not, everyone seems to pay attention when a new Spike Lee movie comes around. There is always a bit of uncertainly that comes with the 63 year-old Atlanta, Georgia native. A nagging question going into a Spike Lee joint is whether he falls into the trap of being too heavy-handed and preachy or if he trusts his material and his direction to do the talking for him. When he finds that balance his movies can be pretty special. When he loses sight of it things get a little messy. Regardless, the director always has something to say.
Hot off of a Best Screenplay Oscar win for “BlacKkKlansman”, Lee sets his eye on another tumultuous time and provocative subject – the Vietnam War. “Da 5 Bloods” is easily one of Netflix’s biggest releases of the year and it sees Lee doing his thing – enlightening through a deep dive into the black American experience and stoking a fire or two which always benefits his message while sometimes hindering his storytelling.
With “Da 5 Bloods” Lee has one foot in the past when black GIs were fighting in Vietnam while a war for their civil rights was raging back home. The other foot is firmly pressed in current day where four former platoon mates, a “brotherhood of bloods“, go back to Vietnam still haunted by ghosts from the war and scarred by their post-war struggles. While the scenes from the war are mostly flashbacks, they powerfully reverberate throughout the entire film effecting nearly every modern day scene we get.
After a tone-setting montage the film introduces us to the four vets as they meet up in Vietnam with a very specific mission in mind. They are Otis (Clarke Peters), the platoon medic and the guy with important contacts in the area, the wealthy Eddie (Norm Lewis) who financed their mission, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the easy-going jokester, and Paul (Delroy Lindo), easily the most damaged of the group but also the most complex. During the war the men served under Stormin’ Norman (a terrific Chadwick Bosman), the rare black squad leader, who inspired them to persevere with power but with honor. Together they formed the film’s namesake – the five bloods.
Through a series of flashbacks we learn the bloods were given a mission to secure a downed C47 deep in the jungle. While investigating the wreckage they discovered a crate of gold bars that was to be given to the native people. Norman convinces the bloods that they should keep the gold and distribute it to their people as payment for years of injustice (the initial irony of taking gold from the hurting indigenous group due to injustice is striking). They manage to bury the crate but are attacked by the surrounding Viet Cong forces. Norman is killed and the rest of the bloods barely escaped with their lives.
That sets up the story for “Da 5 Bloods” as the four surviving friends head back to ‘Nam to retrieve the gold and find Norman’s remains. Lee and his writing team of Danny Bilson, Kevin Willmott, and Paul De Meo pack so much into the film’s 150+ minutes yet the story still seems to wander in the third act before weirdly devolving into an 80’s style ‘back to Vietnam’ shoot’em-up, the very thing Lee takes a shot at earlier in the film. Except this time instead of rescuing POWs it’s millions of dollars in gold bars at stake.
Lee’s storytelling manages to be poignant, eye-opening, perplexing, and frustrating sometimes within the same scene. His four bloods, their camaraderie, their shared pain, it’s all explored and detailed through some really good on-screen chemistry which Lee smartly utilizes. The best of the group is Lindo and by far he is given the meatiest material to explore. He’s a puzzle both as a character and as a Lee construct. Lindo digs in deep and Lee has him go big, showing PTSD in its rawest and truest form. He’s given even more layers after his son David (Jonathan Majors who was so good in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”) arrives, worried about his father and unearthing more details about Paul’s trauma.
There is also power in what the four men represent, both as Vietnam war veterans and as black men growing up during the Civil Rights era. Lee says a lot through them about black life (past and present) as well as the ravages of war both psychologically and socially. Each of the four bloods (minus their steady stream of obscenities that would make Richard Pryor recoil) can often be seen as expressions of deeply felt sentiments rooted in real-life experience. Yes Lee occasionally crosses over into political pettiness, but if you look past those impulses you’ll find many weighty and worthy themes.
As for the meat and potatoes of the story itself, “Da 5 Bloods” isn’t as sturdy. The nostalgic B-movie vibe can be fun even if some of its parts aren’t that effective. Lee throws in a shady French money broker (Jean Reno), an international group of landmine activists￼, a half-baked romance between David and a young French women named Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), and a band of Vietnamese mercenaries who (like many of the Asian characters) cover a broad range of caricatures. None of them bring much for the story.
Add to that some far-fetched plot points including some unintentionally hilarious strokes of luck that are narratively convenient but hard to believe. Also it can be hard to tell which is more important to the four vets, getting their share of the gold or finding Norman’s remains and bringing him home. This is foreshadowed in one character’s warning “Gold does strange things to people. Even old friends.” But there are times when the film itself seems confused, putting far more emphasis on the gold than their fallen brother.
Spike Lee’s films stir up a wealth of conversation and debate. Often lost among it all is his proficiency behind the camera. Lee is a student of cinema and he has never been afraid to flaunt his influences. Here we get so many blatant and unashamed nods to other movies. “Apocalypse Now” ￼rushes to mind as a riverboat snakes through the dense jungle to “Rise of the Valkyries”. Meanwhile impressions of John Huston’s classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” are everywhere (we even get a character who literally says “We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.“) But he also brings plenty of his own signature style seen mostly in his use of period music, camera framing, sudden interjections, etc.
Spike Lee has a knack for getting people to overlook the messiness of his movies. For me that’s a challenge, yet his value as a filmmaker is unquestionable and the subjects he tackles are personal and relevant. “Da 5 Bloods” fits all of that. It’s a fascinating buffet of potent themes and meaningful social commentary, soaked in rich style and classic cinema flavor. Yet its story is a ￼potpourri￼ of highs and not-so-highs, always keeping your attention, but never fully gelling into something you can call great.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS