Da 5 Bloods is a Spike Lee movie about Vietnam. And by that, I really do mean that it's a Spike Lee movie about Vietnam. In other words, this is a film that tackles the subject in a manner unlike any previous one, and tackles it in the director's inimitable style. Lee is doing what he does best here – using a specific topic to explore the issue of race. On one hand, the movie is a well-made, entertaining drama about Black vets on an adventure; on another, it's a lesson about the significant role Black soldiers played in the Vietnam war and rarely get credit for. In both senses, Da 5 Bloods is a brilliant work from a vital filmmaker.
Four vets – Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and Eddie (Norm Lewis) – return to Vietnam. There are two reasons for this trip. Outwardly, they are looking to bring home the remains of their fallen squad leader, Stormin' Norman (played by Chadwick Boseman in flashback sequences). But they also hope to retrieve a case full of U.S. gold that they discovered in a crashed military airplane and subsequently buried. Before he perished, Norman got them all to agree that they would return for it someday, then use the riches to fight for civil rights causes back in America.
That's a single side of Da 5 Bloods, and it's a side that works effectively as a thriller. We watch as the men, joined later by Paul's son David (Jonathan Majors), search for the gold, eventually realizing they aren't the only ones looking for it. The gist is that the guys find themselves at war in Vietnam for a second time, albeit with a different objective. Standoffs and shootouts occur, all of them staged by Lee with realism rather than via action movie cliches.
Flip the coin over and you'll see the side that makes Da 5 Bloods uniquely special. Lee opens the movie with footage of Muhammad Ali explaining why he refused to be drafted and utilizes occasional soundbites from prominent historical figures (Martin Luther King, Bobby Seale, Angela Davis) talking about oppression, fascism, and other topics. The director is drawing a line between the repeated downplaying of Black soldiers – who, as one character points out, comprised more than 30% of front-line troops in Vietnam – and civil unrest from the '60s to present day. Something like the Black Lives Matter movement (which gets a prominent mention) is, from Lee's point of view, another platoon fighting a war, trying not to be erased. It's a powerful, poignant metaphor.
Woven in between those two extremes are a lot of additional themes, including the repercussions of the Vietnam War on both sides. There's a subplot in which Otis visits the Vietnamese prostitute he loved, as well as one involving Paul's conversion to hard-core conservatism post-Vietnam. (The character wears a red MAGA hat throughout and gets ribbed by his pals for supporting “fake President Bone Spurs.”) Yet another revolves around David's belief that Paul has never fully wanted him. All these elements add further richness to the picture.
The four main actors have superb chemistry together. It's Lindo who gives the standout performance, though. Paul is a complex character – angry, bitter, traumatized by his experience, and in possession of guilt roughly the weight of the gold he and his colleagues are searching for. The actor makes his gradual unraveling something we're both mesmerized by and sympathetic to. Lindo has a scorching monologue where the distraught Paul starts talking to himself, then ends up speaking directly to the camera. He deserves to win an Oscar for his forceful work in the role.
Using Marvin Gaye songs on the soundtrack, Da 5 Bloods is the rare movie to fully engage on dramatic, intellectual, and emotional levels. The characters are likable, the story is riveting, and the thematic aspirations hit the bullseye. Spike Lee has been delivering masterpieces for a long time. He does it again now.
out of four
Da 5 Bloods is rated R for strong violence, grisly images and pervasive language. The running time is 2 hours and 34 minutes.