Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods was supposed to open in select theaters, until the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced Netflix to change its plans. You could call that unfortunate timing, except that amid nationwide protests against racism and police violence, the movie could hardly be timelier.
Lee has never been shy about confronting these subjects in films like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and the recent BlacKkKlansman. His latest — even though it takes place in present-day Vietnam — is no exception.
Da 5 Bloods follows a group of black war veterans who fought together in Vietnam in 1971. Now four of them have returned to that country decades later. Their reunion in Ho Chi Minh City begins on a funny, celebratory note. Clarke Peters plays Otis, the cool-headed planner behind their trip. Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis are Melvin and Eddie, on hand to provide warm vibes and comic relief.
And then there’s Paul, played in a stand-out performance by Delroy Lindo, a fixture of Lee’s ’90s films like Crooklyn. Paul’s post-war life has been full of loss and disappointment, and he emerges as the movie’s most complicated and emotionally ravaged character.
The fifth Blood is their squad leader, affectionately known as “Stormin’ Norman,” who was killed in combat in ’71. His death still haunts all of them, especially Paul, who is consumed with guilt for not having saved his comrade’s life.
Stormin’ Norman is played by the charismatic Chadwick Boseman of Black Panther in several exciting, combat-heavy flashbacks. We see Norman and the other four Bloods being sent into the Vietnamese jungle to recover a stash of gold bars from a downed U.S. plane. The gold is meant to buy the allegiance of local fighters against the Viet Cong, but the Bloods, upon finding it, make other plans.
The screenplay is credited to Lee, Kevin Willmott, Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, and it lays out the Bloods’ rationale with unsurprising bluntness, sometimes cutting away from the story to provide historical context, and sometimes injecting that context into the characters’ own dialogue. They talk about the horrors of slavery, the struggles of the civil rights movement and the grossly disproportionate number of black soldiers who were sent to fight and die in Vietnam. And so the Bloods, making their own case for reparations, decide to bury the gold and return for it at a later date, vowing to use it to benefit their communities.
Lee loves his polemics, but he also loves classic Hollywood, and for all its urgency, Da 5 Bloods plays like an old-fashioned action-adventure saga, complete with references to films like Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Personally, it reminded me of Richard Linklater‘s Vietnam-vet drama Last Flag Flying, with a bit of Rambo-esque carnage sprinkled in. It’s also a companion piece to Lee’s World War II drama Miracle at St. Anna, another critique of the U.S.’ long, shameful history of devaluing its black soldiers.
At 2 hours and 35 minutes, Da 5 Bloods is an unwieldy sprawl: It’s like a platoon picture, a heist thriller, a history lesson and a grumpy-old-men comedy rolled into one, spliced together with documentary footage and a Marvin Gaye-heavy soundtrack.
There are a lot of supporting characters, too, including a Vietnamese businesswoman whom Otis knew during the war and three humanitarian workers who specialize in clearing old land mines. One key subplot involves Paul’s son, played by Jonathan Majors from last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. He tags along for the trip, and his strained relationship with his dad adds a dose of melodrama to a picture that’s already bursting at the seams.
But even at its most unwieldy, I found it easy to forgive Da 5 Bloods its excesses, and to simply go along with these characters on their wildly unpredictable and ultimately devastating journey. You could accuse Spike Lee of trying to do and say too much, and you wouldn’t be the first one to do so: He can be a maddeningly undisciplined storyteller, but also a generous and thoughtful one. There’s something both moving and essential about his attempt to reclaim the Vietnam War film from a black perspective. He’s made a loving throwback to the Hollywood war movies of yesteryear that can’t help but make you think about all the stories those movies never got around to telling.