Spike Lee has history on his mind in Da 5 Bloods. That almost should go without saying for the kinetic, unambiguous filmmaker whose ambition is always to find the bigger picture. But as it turns out, even the framing device of the Vietnam War is not large enough for his latest effort. Rather Da 5 Bloods grapples with the ugly history of all American wars, and the Black bodies that lay in their foundations. This reality is present from the opening moments when Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia is juxtaposed with Apollo 11 landing on the moon; and it’s there when Chadwick Boseman recalls the death of Crispus Attucks too.
“We was the first to die for this red, white, and blue,” Boseman’s Stormin’ Norman tells his Bloods-in-arms back in ’71. “Yeah, that’s right, it was a soul brother. Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre.” And its Lee’s attempt to convey that legacy that makes Da 5 Bloods his most elegiac film to date, and something that in its better moments transcends shaggy narrative issues to offer a lyrical impression of brotherhood and the love felt by men whose whole lives could be seen as one long, unending trench.
Set mostly in the 21st century, Da 5 Bloods is really about four ex-GIs who return to Vietnam to find and bury a fifth. At least that’s what they’ve told everyone. Among these now exceedingly middle-aged vets are Otis (Clarke Lewis), a gregarious personality who has old war secrets unknown even to him lingering in Ho Chi Minh City, Eddie (Norm Lewis), the one who found success as a car dealer after returning to the world, Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), the practical go-along-to-get-along buddy who curiously brought a metal detector, and Paul (Delroy Lindo). A fiercely guarded and haunted vet, Lindo’s protagonist is a fascinating assortment of contradictions and long-remembered grievances, collected over a lifetime that was permanently scarred by a few years in ‘Nam.
With a treasured Make America Great Again hat turned backwards on his head, and a wary look for any Vietnamese man who tries to make eye contact—particularly those old time Viet Cong vets down the bar—Paul doesn’t have patience for anyone but the ghost of Stormin’ Norman he’s come to put to rest…. Well, Norman and the gold buried with his unmarked grave. Indeed, before Boseman’s charismatic leader died under mysterious circumstances during the war, Da 5 Bloods made their own reparations by taking millions in gold that the U.S. government had stolen from the North Vietnamese. Norman wanted to use these bricks to build up their sisters and brothers back home, but now 50 years on, his blood brothers are going to split the gold among themselves… Evenly, they swear. But things immediately begin to go sideways when Paul’s adult son David (Jonathan Majors) unexpectedly turns up, asking for his own cut in the expedition.
A cinephile and film professor at heart, Lee doesn’t shy away from the visual vernacular written by decades of Vietnam War movies. Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays as the treasure seekers’ boat gingerly cruises up the river, more into the very well-known past rather than primal mystery. But then this being a Spike Lee joint, that past is recontextualized, with the quartet’s first night in country spent at a nightclub with an Apocalypse Now poster hanging over a neon-lit Budweiser sign. Both the American fever dream image of Vietnam, and the crass commercialization of even that nightmare, hang above this culture, as domineering of their lives as it is of the Bloods.
But Da 5 Bloods is not a war movie. Not truly. Despite there being flashbacks to battle sequences that happily embrace an almost propaganda-level of excitement for the violence, the blood and guts of the war is told in vignette. In his bones, Lee is more closely drawing on The Treasure of Sierra Madre, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart’s masterful thriller about greed and the thirst for gold, with Lindo as a baby boomer version of Fred C. Dobbs.
Yet it’s that desire to bask in the pulpy or ugly sides of his characters, as opposed to deifying their virtues, that gives the movie authenticity and true bite. Lindo is, again, phenomenal as a bitter man who can never forget being called a baby killer when he returned from the war, yet now parrots a party line about separating babies from their parents at the U.S. border. His relationship with his own son is also a piece of work where much generational trauma is hanging just out of frame. Majors, who made a striking impression in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, matches Lindo to develop a fractured, wounded core at the film’s heart that cannot be fixed by dividing percentages.
It is these harder truths where Lee seeks to find a poetic realism—the war stuff is knowingly artificial with the sexagenarian actors playing their teenage selves opposite Boseman, who for the record is also far removed from his early 20s. But it’s the emotional verisimilitude created between these men that finds a raw truth. Even with its nostalgic premise and pulpy plot machinations, complete with French liaisons like a shadowy banker (Jean Reno) who promises he’ll fence the gold for a price, Lee is creating in microcosm a familiar story of European colonialism, manipulations, and Black bodies being used in the grinder to enrich aristocratic interests. All the while the ideals of this formative time and place, and of leaders like Stormin’ Norman, feeling elusive.
It’s a lot to pack into a movie, which is probably why Da 5 Bloods has an ungainly run time of 154 minutes. Like BlacKkKlansman before it, this Lee joint could’ve been cut down, particularly in the nearly 60-minute first act that makes it even more top-heavy than his previous Oscar winner. But even at this length, it feels like the movie still struggles to collect all its ideas into a fully formed and coherent narrative—the story runs smooth, but all the layers of its ending with multiple denouements can be cluttered despite buttons that are as unsubtle as the Charlottesville footage in BlacKkKlansman. Not that the righteous indignation is unwelcome.
Still, if Lee bites off more than he can chew, he also offers a feast for the eye and mind in Da 5 Bloods. With its tonal shifts between character study and thriller, reunion comedy and generational memorial, the film provides a collage of observations and insights about the disproportionate number of Black men who were once again ordered to fight and die for a country that would rather shed their blood than treat them fairly. It’s a story as old as America itself, which Da 5 Bloods mines plentifully, finding gold up in them hills.
Da 5 Bloods premieres on Netflix on June 12.