I suppose there’s an interesting mathematical coincidence to the fact that Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is coming out this weekend of all weekends, as Black Lives Matter protests continue to happen around the continent. Da 5 Bloods deals directly with BLM as a movement but also more broadly with the long history of violence and exploitation that ties Black people to war efforts. But that’s specifically why I say that the coincidence is more or less mathematical. What Da 5 Bloods argues is that Black Lives Matter didn’t suddenly spring into existence with the death of George Floyd and that Black lives have always mattered.
Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) are four Vietnam War vets who have returned to Saigon nearly 50 years after their last mission, a bungled raid that left their friend Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) dead and a cache of Viet Cong gold bars stranded in the middle of the jungle. A recent mudslide has perhaps shifted terrain enough to uncover the bars, so Otis parlays a deal with an old paramour (Lê Y Lan) in which they will return to the jungle, get the gold bars and turn them into cash through the services of a sketchy French fence (Jean Reno as the Sydney Greenstreet figure). Hiring a Vietnamese guide named Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), the four remaining Bloods head out into the jungle for their one last score.
One can certainly never accuse Spike Lee of being a cowardly filmmaker. In fact, his best and worst films are often guilty of the exact same flights of fancy: sharp tonal shifts, exaggerated humour, flashy cinematography or mise-en-scène choices, “multimedia” elements weaved into the narrative (these days it’s mainly PowerPoint-esque incursions) and heavy doses of music (both score and soundtrack). Da 5 Bloods is a particularly heady mix of influences, from the obvious (Apocalypse Now, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) to the somewhat more tenuous (The Hurt Locker, maybe?). Da 5 Bloods is a war movie, an action movie, a buddy comedy and a searing drama about the Black experience — sometimes all at once.
It seems mainly that the secret of Lee’s success with a film as ambitious and free-wheeling as this one is alchemical — a little bit of this, a pinch of that mixed with this — and balanced. The constant whiplash between moments of high drama, bursts of violence, righteous indignation and gallows comedy does result in some of the uneven, off-kilter moments that punctuate any Spike Lee movie, but even the film’s most radical flights of fancy pay off. The Vietnam War sequences — shot in square 16mm — feature the middle-aged leads playing their younger selves with minimal (or nonexistent) make-up alongside the much-younger Boseman.
It’s an abstract, almost Brechtian decision, especially considering how it clashes with the overtly gritty camerawork, but the distancing effect that Lee presumably wants comes across perfectly. (When I remember an event that I lived through a decade ago, it’s through my own eyes, after all — once you’ve changed, the person you were is inaccessible forever.) Da 5 Bloods suffers a little from the typical issue-jamming that Lee tends to fall prey to (the film integrates Trump and the opioid crisis in less-than-optimal fashion), but it’s impressive how Lee rises to the occasion of creating such a complex and risky tapestry.
The nominal lead of the film is Paul, a temperamental and rage-filled man who has suffered the most from the PTSD of the war. Distrustful of everyone and prone to bouts of flinty self-righteousness, Paul is introduced giving a passionate defence of Trump and how his election may allow him to finally “get his” and he only becomes more ornery and angry from that point. The sort of anti-hero that’s difficult to pull off, Paul is a man that has been completely obliterated by injustice and systemic racism — a man whose entire sense of being has been replaced (understandably) by anger. Lindo gives a towering, career-best performance in a way that both grounds the film and, in one trademark Spike Lee monologue, also establishes the film’s thesis as existing way beyond the artificial boundaries of a traditional narrative.
Da 5 Bloods is an extraordinary piece of work in many ways, never more so than in the way it manages to be so many things at once. The highest compliment that I can pay to Da 5 Bloods is that even though it takes many narrative cues from classic war and adventure films, I had no idea where it was going — not only in terms of the plot, but thematically. It’s the rare film these days that keeps you on your toes ideologically and narratively, a nearly-perfect synthesis of all the weird, contradictory things that define Spike Lee as a filmmaker. It’s a film of great depth that also happens to be a pretty exciting and shitkickin’ action movie, a moving and incendiary comment on current affairs and a complex exploration of both brotherhood and the Black legacy of the military. ■
Da 5 Bloods is on Netflix now.
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