Spike Lee is back with another winner.
“Da 5 Bloods” is the story of a group of Vietnam War veterans (Isiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, Delroy Lindo, and Clarke Peters) who return to find the remains of their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) and bring him back home — along with a cache of gold they left behind during a firefight.
The foursome first appears in an upscale hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, surrounded by western businesses like McDonald’s and KFC. They’re surprised at how capitalism is thriving in a communist nation, and how different it is compared to the early seventies, when they served there. But that modern feeling disappears as they travel into the jungle, armed with GPS devices, backpacks, and the kind of metal detector you see old men using on beaches to search for lost jewelry and coins. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that their expedition doesn’t go as planned.
Lee’s brilliance as a director is on display in several of the shots, including one in which a military helicopter flies directly at the camera while framed by the blazing sun in the background — beautiful. In most of the jungle scenes (shot in Thailand), you can feel the heat and humidity coming off the screen. He also changed the aspect ratio of the screen so that the flashbacks look smaller and grainier than the modern-day scenes.
Lee offers an homage to “Apocalypse Now” as the group takes off up river in a boat while Wagner’s “Ride Of The Valkyries” plays on the soundtrack — and again towards the end of the movie, when one of the characters refers to what’s taken place as, “Madness… madness!” Considering the gold find, it’s only appropriate there are tips of the hat to “Treasure Of The Sierra Madre,” too.
One of the threads running through “Da 5 Bloods” is how Black men made up a disproportionate number of draftees sent to Vietnam and, once there, they made up 11% of the troops, but only 2% of the officers. Lee cold-opens the movie with a clip of Muhammad Ali explaining why he refused to go:
My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America… And shoot them for what? They never called me a n–ger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality.
“Da 5 Bloods” includes clips of anti-war and civil rights protests of the ’60s and ’70s that still reverberate today in the Black Lives Matter movement. The orchestral score by Terence Blanchard — long part of Lee’s creative team — is reminiscent of the one he wrote for “Inside Man,” mixed with some era-appropriate songs by Marvin Gaye (including the eerily haunting vocal-only track from “What’s Going On”).
Race is a theme “Da 5 Bloods” returns to again and again — but not the only one. There are also several Vietnamese characters who are not happy to see ex-GIs back in their nation, particularly those whose fathers fought on the side of North Vietnam and died at the hands of Americans. And there are the veterans’ internal battles — particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo, in a tour de force performance), who battled PTSD issues for decades.
Lee and fellow screenwriters Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and Kevin Willmott made Paul their point man. Like so many veterans, he struggled with domestic life upon returning from the war, unable to keep jobs and relationships and still battling nightmarish memories of his fallen comrade all these years later. A Trump supporter, Paul proudly wears a MAGA hat, which helps explain why he’s so quick to believe (and concoct) conspiracy theories about both friends and enemies — even his adult son (Jonathan Majors), who shows up to try to reconnect with his father after a long estrangement.
In the flashback scenes, Lee chose not to de-age the four leads, all in their sixties, or have younger actors play them. That choice helps showcase the bond the veterans have had since their days in uniform. The very solid supporting cast includes Lé Y Lan as the former lover of Clarke Peters’ character, Jean Reno as a Frenchman who will help the foursome sell the gold, Veronica Ngô as the North Vietnamese propagandist Hanoi Hannah, and Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser and Jasper Pääkkönen as a trio of NGO workers who become wrapped up in Da Bloods’ mission (the latter two also appeared in Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman“).
“Da 5 Bloods” seems long at 155 minutes, but after watching it, I can’t think of any section that could have been excised without hurting the story. It’s a terrific adventure as well as a morality tale, worthy of inclusion in any list of the Best Spike Lee Joints.
I give “Da 5 Bloods” (which is now streaming on Netflix) a 9 out of 10.