Premise: Four African American vets battle the forces of man and nature when they return to Vietnam seeking the remains of their fallen squad leader and the gold fortune he helped them hide.
When Spike Lee has something to say, it’s probably best to just sit back and pay attention. The vocally outspoken filmmaker, whose work has touched on so many genres over his career, has a direct, unmistakable style that he brings with gusto to his newest project, Da 5 Bloods. The film opens with a powerful montage of prominent African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, specifically with their attitudes against American involvement the Vietnam War. This sets the stage for Lee’s thesis statement at the heart of Da 5 Bloods: the unequal treatment of Black soldiers on the front lines, and what they face after returning home. The Vietnam War is well-worn territory in Hollywood at this point. Spike knows this. But what hasn’t been shown, and what the main characters comment on in one scene, is the depiction of the Black experience. Films like Platoon and Apocalypse Now certainly have black characters, but they’re mostly just set dressing and they rarely feel like fully-fleshed characters that African Americans can identify with. The visual montages are less frequent as the film progresses, but Lee makes sure to let you know that he’s done his homework. Whenever a particularly momentous occasion or figure is referenced by the characters, a historical image or video accompanies it, including a short clip of “President Bone Spurs” from a campaign rally.
The film picks up as the titular Bloods return to Vietnam, much older and grumpier – but not necessarily wiser. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, they’re there to retrieve the missing remains of their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman). But their primary mission is to recover the gold bars they left behind in the downed CIA plane in the middle of the jungle, where Norman was killed. The surviving Bloods are comprised of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.). Add in supporting turns from Jean Reno, Paul Walter Hauser, and Jonathan Majors as Paul’s tagalong son David, and it’s clear that Lee has the clout to assemble a dynamite cast.
Lee weaves elements of a heist story, a family drama, a war movie, plus plenty of comedic to create a topically relevant story with unexpected relevance to the events of today. And, to Lee’s credit, his story is much more nuanced than the geriatric “old men acting young again” genre, a la Wild Hogs or The Bucket List. Some plot and character elements work, some not as much. Like the character trait of Delroy Lindo’s Paul – more on him in a bit – being a MAGA-spewing Republican: it mostly just exists to make him more antagonistic towards the rest of the group.
One stylistic aspect that Spike Lee consistently brings to the table is his love of film history; Do the Right Thing memorably updated Robert Mitchum’s “love, hate” tattoos for a younger generation. Da 5 Bloods is full of classic film nostalgia, ranging from outright quotes to less overt references. Again, some work as mere references, and some reach more towards what the film is going for thematically. The “Ride of the Valkyries” moment from Apocalype Now leans more towards the former, while the poster image of Willem Dafoe in Platoon is more of the latter. Not to mention Da 5 Bloods’ many nods to John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – right down to a repurposing of its most famous line* – in which a group of friends is driven mad by the hunt for gold. Thankfully the script (credited to Lee, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott, and Danny Bilson) has more on its mind than simply being an homage to classic Hollywood films. This is a film about grief, guilt, and greed, wrapped up in the complicated history of American involvement in Vietnam, and it’s all embodied by Delroy Lindo’s magnetic performance as Paul.
*It’s interesting that Lee most directly references Apocalypse Now and Sierra Madre, in that they’re two often misquoted films. I wonder how much Lee took that into account when putting Da 5 Bloods together.
Da 5 Bloods marks the fifth collaboration between Lindo and Spike Lee, and Lindo is captivating, despite his character’s inconsistencies. This being a Spike Lee film, Lindo delivers at least one monologue direct to the camera, and he makes it all but impossible to look away. Paul lives with a gruff, don’t-tread-on-me exterior, but he’s an enigma: it’s clear there’s a deeper pain lying beneath the surface. The scene late in the film that explores the origin of that pain puts his earlier actions in a much different light. Yes, Spike Lee employs another unique stylistic choice when turning to the flashbacks of the war, by using the same middle-aged actors as their younger selves, without de-aging technology or visual techniques. It’s a bold decision, a way of visually suggesting that these men never have and never will leave the battlefield. Credit should also be given to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, who films the flashback sequences in a boxier aspect ratio, with de-saturated colors to look more like a vintage documentary.
It’s not often that Spike Lee directs a film outside of his native New York, much less America altogether. Only time will tell if Da 5 Bloods holds up as well as his greatest films like Do the Right Thing, Malcom X, or his Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. Yes, the film is a little long and could use some clarity in certain spots. For one, Norm Lewis’ Eddie barely contributes to the plot until right before the end of his character arc. And the father-son relationship between Paul and David feels a little tacked-on at times. Lee is unmistakably trying to comment on the generational divide between men that were forced to fight and those that didn’t, but it never quite feels fully explored. But regardless, Da 5 Bloods is clearly a project that only Spike Lee could tell, and the way he tells it makes it one of the highlights of the year so far.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult. Find more of Ben’s writing here.