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Just as every movie has a lesson, every movie also has its politics. Academy Award winner (damn, that sounds great to read) Spike Lee is never shy about his level of challenging civics, nor should he be. His movies are his earned and rightful rostrums. Stitched with the electrified barbed wire of echoed history, Da 5 Bloods is infused with warranted politics that make it more than its retirement adventure and war movie ingredients. With stern strength in this Netflix release, the rants of old men give way to the treatises of ghosts.
The diatribes and tirades in question come from four Vietnam veterans in their mid-60s. Eddie (Broadway star Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (The Wire’s Clarke Peters), and Paul (the top-billed Delroy Lindo) were among the “Soul Brothers” who served several tours in the First Infantry. These men return to a modernized Ho Chi Minh City in the Land of the Blue Dragon for a special sort of overdue pilgrimage. Their two determined objectives are to bring back the remains of their fallen squadron leader “Stormin’” Norman Holloway (Chadwick Boseman) and to abscond with millions of dollars of gold bars they buried in the jungle nearly 50 years ago.
Forever linked by surviving the same past, each is very different men. Eddie and Melvin are the easy-going ones while Otis leads as the sympathetic organizer of the international trade operation with rediscovered familial roots in Vietnam. The loudest and surliest of this team is Paul, a bitter and ignorant conservative who wears his politics on his sleeve and on his head with a turned-back MAGA hat. He is joined by his undesired adult son David (the rising Jonathan Majors of The Last Black Man in San Francisco). Everyone is forced to bend or deal with Paul’s mouthy dominance especially when the shit hits the fan.
Here’s where the treatises emerge as Da 5 Bloods offers a look at the black experience of the Vietnam War. Black soldiers comprised 32% of American forces in Vietnam as expendable muscle. They fought an immoral war for freedoms on foreign souls that did not often equal what they had back in their home country. The reward for their service was an eternal struggle with trauma and the frowned-upon release of any perceived weakness from their experiences. In fifty years, their war never ended, in the mind or otherwise.
If you ever pondered what a filmmaker like Spike Lee could achieve in this genre, wonder no longer. Da 5 Bloods is boosted by a screenwriting assist from video game specialists Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo adding lively action pieces. Lee’s pulp has punch thanks to dynamic editing from Roma’s Adam Gough and slick shifts in filters and aspect ratios (from 2.39:1 to 1:33:1) between the time periods by Bohemian Rhapsody cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Beneath all that, Lee still infuses his favorite flourishes including a soundscape combining stirring Marvin Gaye tracks with a gripping score from his trusted trumpeter extraordinaire Terence Blanchard. Needless to say, Spike can hang.
Embarking “in country” on this quest back into the tropical terrain of their formative and macho memories, each of these men faces this quest with different fears and goals. What the money means to them versus what the journey means to them defines desires and actions. They are desperately trying to secure or change their own legacies. Some see this with proper closure and betterment in mind. Others are selfish with greed or aim to grab their own sense of reparations. Allowing this to happen within their tight-knit camaraderie, they threaten to become their own villains.
Through all the arguments, tail chases, and betrayals peppered with gunfire in the movie, if there is one element of Da 5 Bloods that is flattened more than it’s flaunted it is the specter of Stormin’ Norman. Chadwick Boseman embodies a flashy and fearless lionheart who, when removed from the violence, orates the importance of loving one another with mantras like “do right just to get right” or “God is Love, Love is God.” The evidence of these instilled values is present but the full swell of them is untapped in heightening this drama.
Each member of this choice ensemble glints with talent. Casting four seniors near was a coup for Da 5 Bloods. Each of the central four play their ages and personalities with natural peaks and limitations. During the war scene flashbacks, Lee chose not to recast them (or Scorsese-style de-age them) with younger actors over their venerable guises. That keen move creates the sense these characters and men never really left the rigors and horrors they shared alongside Boseman’s animated idol. Two of the cast stand out above the rest.
Delroy Lindo is unreservedly ferocious. Blustering with belligerence and shoving his superiority around with every drop of truth and sweat, this may very well be the best performance of his career. Parallel to Lindo and pushing right back, Clarke Peters is the sage salve that becomes the heart and soul of Da 5 Bloods. His gravely delivery and patience is remarkable. Even in this unknown and meager year, give these men proper Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor frontrunner statuses for future awards.
Re-teaming with his fellow Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman writer Kevin Wilmott, Spike Lee puts his pungent poetry into a war film setting with dauntless theatrical results. Beyond the fictionalized exploits of hallowed brotherhood, Da 5 Bloods dispenses a parade of extra archival nuggets chronicling where and when the lightning rods of the past spoke out against atrocity and the racial plight during the Vietnam War era. While this layer elongates the running time, it is a vast history lesson of poignancy and topicality. Those goals have become two of many personified signatures of Spike Lee, and they are worth every effort.