'Da 5 Bloods': Film Review

Da 5 Bloods Still 2 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix
As timely as today's news.

Delroy Lindo leads a band of African American vets who return to Vietnam to settle unfinished business in Spike Lee's politically charged adventure for Netflix about the war that never ends.

Just moments into Da 5 Bloods — Spike Lee's ballsy adventure saga strewn with pungent commentary on the eternally festering issue of race in America — a scene destined to launch a thousand GIFs shows the surviving members of the title's soul brotherhood boogying in formation through a Ho Chi Minh City nightclub to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." It's arguably the coolest dance sequence in recent screen memory, not least because four terrific actors in their 50s and 60s are busting their own fabulous moves with a joy you'd have to be dead inside not to feel. Clarke Peters' funky chicken alone is such a blast it's practically medicinal.

But the scene is not just a fun throwaway as we get to know the principal characters, African American Vietnam veterans returning more than four decades later to follow through on a promise while embarking on a treasure hunt. Lee, in addition to being among our most impassioned political filmmakers, is also a storyteller of uncommon vitality, fluent in the shorthand of forging connections between his audience and his characters. Even when this inventive Netflix feature gets messy and convoluted in the second half, with the director's tonal control sometimes faltering, we are wholeheartedly invested in these men for the duration.

The film's timeliness is uncanny. Lee penned the script with his BlacKkKlansman co-writer Kevin Willmott, based on a screenplay by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, and the director wastes not a second before taking a cold plunge into his real subject — the broken promises made to black Americans. A stunning collage of clips and photographs opens the movie, set to Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," one of six tracks used from the artist's 1971 What's Going On album, their lyrics so trenchant they could have been written yesterday.

Interspersed with haunting images of young African American soldiers during the Vietnam War, the clips go from Muhammad Ali's 1978 speech revisiting his refusal to be drafted, through Kwame Ture stating, "America has declared war on black people," to Angela Davis warning — over footage of Agent Orange being dropped and violence both on American soil and on the streets of Saigon — "If the link-up is not made between what's happening in Vietnam and what's happening here, we may very well face a period of full-blown fascism very soon." Gaye's achingly sweet voice singing the words "trigger-happy policing" sends a chill down your spine.

But as much as this loaded prologue seems impossible to separate from the unrest now galvanizing this country, Lee's point, which he makes swiftly and with blistering efficiency, is that it can't be called prescient when it's sadly perpetual. In a theme broached by Malcolm X and continued by Bobby Seale, before being echoed later by the movie's fictional characters, we're reminded that black Americans have fought for their country in armed conflicts from the Civil War to World War II and on through Vietnam for a promise of freedom that was never fully honored. If the sense of history repeating itself bristled through BlacKkKlansman, it shouts in heartfelt anguish through Da 5 Bloods. Talk of reparations seems plugged directly into our current moment.

In one of several time jumps back to 1971, Stormin' Norman (Chadwick Boseman), the First Infantry Bloods' squad and spiritual leader, advances the argument. Justifying a plan to "repossess" a chest of gold pulled from the wreckage of a U.S. military aircraft, he traces the line of black sacrifice for white America all the way back to Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the Boston Massacre in 1770, and even further, to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.

"All they give us was a foot up our black asses," he says of his country. "I say, the USA owe us. We built this bitch." These words, and others like them, carry hurt, anger and indignation that make Da 5 Bloods absolutely a film we need to see now. It plays like a hot take, even if obviously it was planned and filmed well before the murder of George Floyd sparked the nation's present howl of outrage.

Lee threads historical references throughout, sometimes splicing in archival photos and newsreel clips. As is often the case in his work, he's unafraid to risk charges of didacticism as his characters reveal wounds inflicted in the past that still bleed in the present.

Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis) reunite in Ho Chi Minh City, their hugs and dap handshakes showing that the decades apart haven't loosened their blood bond. Even the eyebrow-raising disclosure that Paul is an unapologetic supporter of "President Fake Bone Spurs" gets a pass. They share the pain of returning home from service to be ostracized as "baby killers" before getting down to the business of planning their expedition to locate the long-buried gold stash and retrieve their fallen comrade Norman's remains. The elements obscured their markers for years, but recent satellite photographs show that a mudslide has uncovered them again.

There's an entertainingly old-fashioned Treasure of the Sierra Madre vibe to this plot engine, juiced up with polemical positions on racial inequality. Lee drops in conspicuous homages to Apocalypse Now, particularly Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" over the early riverboat leg of the group's journey. They are joined by local guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyên) and by Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors), who turns up unannounced, concerned for his father. The extent of Paul's untreated PTSD is first hinted at in an explosive scene, played with electrifying volatility by Lindo, in which the provocations of a river merchant trigger his rage.

Among the other figures in on the plan are Tien (Lê Y Lan), a former prostitute who was Otis' lover during the war; and Desroche (Jean Reno), a shady French businessman enlisted to help them launder the cash haul. The film's perspective on colonialism is a tad thin, and arguably one sociopolitical bullet point too many. But that legacy also is touched on through Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a Frenchwoman who turned her back on a family fortune built on rubber and rice to found an organization dedicated to removing old land mines and undetonated bombs.

There's a lot of plot unpacked in the 2.5-hour movie's first half, but Lee shuffles through it with fluidity and verve, aided by the tetchy but mostly genial group's camaraderie. Working for the first time on a feature with gifted cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (Drive, Bohemian Rhapsody), whose gorgeous tracking shots induce swoons, Lee demarcates the shifts between present day and 1971 with different aspect ratios and film stocks, using saturated color on the latter interludes. Aside from a black and white still photo, the four surviving Bloods are not digitally de-aged in the flashbacks (à la The Irishman), trusting us to grasp that they are still the same men they were back then.

The visual field makes another dynamic shift — announced with a flourish accompanied by the military drums that are a key element of Terence Blanchard's symphonic score — as they begin the trek through the jungles and rice paddies. This is where the storytelling gets knotty and indulges in a few clichés and cheeky contrivances en route to the more conventionally genre movie-ish action sequences of the climactic stretch — with a shoot-'em-up finale that's perhaps mildly tongue-in-cheek. But even if Da 5 Bloods at times seems to be morphing into an entirely different movie, its playfulness, as much as its raw power, keeps you glued.

The surfacing friction between Paul and Otis as trust issues intrude on the mission, along with long-running communication difficulties, breakthroughs and new setbacks in the troubled relationship between Paul and David, provide a sturdy emotional anchor. The legacy of damaged connections between black men and their sons is another aspect of Lee's canvas.

The ensemble playing is tight and incisively individualized down the line, with the most substantial roles going to the great Peters, an actor of unimpeachable intelligence and soulfulness; Majors, who makes good on the promise of his breakthrough work in The Last Black Man in San Francisco with another finely detailed characterization; and Lindo, who makes audacious choices in what might be a career-best performance. Paul's heart-of-darkness odyssey, marked by a series of direct-to-camera arias of madness, is mesmerizing. And his communing with the ghost of Norman allows for moving moments from Boseman in a small but stirring role. The writers avoid making the men noble heroes; all of them are imperfect, scarred to different degrees by their experience of war and injustice.

As is customary in their long collaboration, Lee and the masterful Blanchard layer music beneath these later passages in ways that can seem both counterintuitive and invigorating, with the use of Gaye's songs hitting you in the gut while speaking to your heart and head. The Chambers Brothers' "Time Has Come Today" provides another evocative tie between then and now.

In a couple of highly effective interludes used to amplify the sociopolitical context, Lee and Willmott bring in Hanoi Hannah (Van Veronica Ngo), the Vietnamese radio DJ who broadcast in English to American G.I.s. The split-screen visual of the men's faces as she reports on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the resulting rioting at home is devastating. Hannah also imparts the biting statistic that black Americans represent 11 percent of the U.S. population but 32 percent of the military presence in Vietnam.

Politics is always near the surface, often with a defiant wink, as in the recurring appearance of a faded, soiled MAGA hat, or in more pointed digs at a country that elected "a reality TV clown for a president" or "put a Klansman in the Oval Office." The strategic choice to conclude with the King speech in which he quotes Langston Hughes' Let America Be America Again reads as a knowing subversion of Trump's curdled 2016 campaign slogan.

Lee deftly steers it all full circle in a series of brief wrap-up scenes that are both fancifully tidy and deadly serious, acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that allows this sprawling, unwieldy, frequently brilliant film to close on a profoundly affecting note of hope and catharsis. Structural flaws notwithstanding, this movie is a gift right now, and there's no other director that could have made it.

Production companies: Lloyd Levin/Beatriz Levin Production, in association with 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks, Rahway Road
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Johnny Trí Nguyên, Jean Reno, Chadwick Boseman, Lê Y Lan, Nguyên Ngc Lâm, Sandy Hng Phm, Van Veronica Ngo
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriters: Danny Bilson, Paul DeMeo, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
Producers: Lloyd Levin, Beatriz Levin, Jon Kilik
Executive producers: Jonathan Filley, Barry Levine, Mike Bundlie
Director of photography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Production designer: Wynn Thomas
Costume designer: Donna Berwick
Music: Terence Blanchard
Editor: Adam Gough
Casting: Kim Coleman

Rated R, 156 minutes