You know a Spike Lee joint when you see one – “Da 5 Bloods,” now available for streaming on Netflix, is most assuredly a Lee joint.
The titular 5 Bloods are a squadron of African American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War. They are Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). Norman is the Bloods’ squad leader, but he’s more than that. Sure, he teaches his fellow soldiers how to fight, but also drops knowledge on their collective history and current plight as black men. The other Bloods describe him as a combination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
The Bloods find a cache of American gold in the jungle, which they stash with the intention of bringing it home and redistributing it through black communities at Norman’s behest. Shortly after the gold’s discovery, Norman is killed in combat and the cache is lost. Fifty years later the four remaining Bloods return to Vietnam in order retrieve Norman’s remains and the gold itself.
Complications arise in the form of Paul’s estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), an educator who crashes their party, demands to join the Bloods on their adventure and wants his own piece of the pie. Further complicating matters is the fact that David’s cozying up to Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a French heiress looking to demine the Vietnamese jungle alongside her colleagues Simon and Seppo (“BlacKkKlansman” Klansmen Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen, respectively). Furthest complicating matters are French businessman Desroche (Jean Reno) and Otis’ former lover Tiên (Lê Y Lan), with whom the Bloods partner to transport their gold despite not knowing their intentions.
There’s much to admire about “Da 5 Bloods.” Lee said he didn’t have the budget to recast or digitally de-age his actors so Lindo, Peters, Whitlock Jr. and Lewis play the younger and current versions of their characters, which gives the proceedings a haunting quality suggesting these men never truly came home from the war. Additionally, this makes Boseman’s character seem even more fully formed and eternally youthful when you see him guiding his elders. Majors, Peters, Whitlock Jr. and Boseman are all excellent. If there’s a weaker link in the bunch it’s Lewis, who to be fair I’m less familiar with and isn’t given as much to do.
Lindo stands head and shoulders above his accomplished castmates. His Paul is interesting and aggravating in equal measure – he’s plagued by PTSD, was a bad Dad to David and incessantly sports a MAGA cap in modern segments. Lindo was a successful, working character actor prior to teaming with Lee on 1995’s underrated “Clockers,” in which he was chillingly evil as drug lord Rodney Little. That film and role upped Lindo’s profile. He worked incessantly in higher profile projects from the mid-‘90s to the mid-aughts. “Da 5 Bloods” is a comeback of sorts for Lindo, who’s absolutely electric here. A scene in which Paul is granted forgiveness in conjunction with a letter he wrote to David absolutely tore my heart out. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen this year. It’s truly Oscar-caliber work.
In addition to the aces acting on display, the proceedings both look good (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel changes formats and aspect ratios frequently to great effect) and sound good (Terrence Blanchard and Marvin Gaye’s music is emotionally evocative). At 155 minutes, there’s an awful lot of “Da 5 Bloods.” I genuinely feel the movie would’ve played better were it half an hour shorter, but it’s much more accomplished than Lee’s first foray into war films, “Miracle at St. Anna.” Some scenes run longer than they need to. Some characters (namely Hedy, Simon, Seppo, Desroche and Tiên) feel extraneous. Then again, Lee has a lot on his mind and these “extraneous” characters allow him to touch upon the impact both France and America have had on Vietnam. This bonus content also allows Lee to implement one of my favorite double dolly shots of his entire filmography at the end of the picture.
Nothing registered with me as deeply as material detailing what it’s like for the Bloods to fight for a country that doesn’t fight for them in return. Seeing these men hear about and react to the murder of Dr. King while in the jungle is tangibly powerful. It’s appropriate then that Lee concludes the picture with footage of Dr. King quoting Langston Hughes, “O, yes/ I say it plain/ America never was America to me/ And yet I swear this oath – America will be!”