Da 5 Bloods Review: Lee’s latest joint is a powerful, modern masterpiece
Writer/director Spike Lee’s newest film, Da 5 Bloods, is a historical and moving trip back through the ghosts of the Vietnam War and the pain and rage that’s haunted those that fought in it.
The film follows a group of black Vietnam veterans, Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Paul (Delroy Lindo), as they return to Vietnam in order to reclaim a lost treasure and a fallen soldier. During a major firefight, the group and their young squadron leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman) discovers a large case full of gold bars that’s meant to go allied Vietnam soldiers and ultimately decide to hide it for themselves. With Norman having been killed in action and constant warfare having drastically impacted the land, the four of them, along with Paul’s son David (Jonathan Majors), must search for the gold and the remains of Norman so he can have a proper burial. As the group treks through the jungles of Vietnam, the group deals with new obstacles that stem from their age, the lives they lived after the war, and the pain they still feel.
Originally, this film was actually set to be directed by Oliver Stone, written by Danny Bilson and Paul De Mao, and went under the title “The Last Tour”. However, after Stone left the project back in 2016, Lee and recent writing partner Kevin Willmott reworked the script to give it more of African American perspective and Lee came onto direct. Frankly, having Lee join on was one of the best things that could happen to this film as he gives this film a distinct identity with how he embeds black history into the characters and story.
While it’s not uncommon to see Lee touch on black history in his stories and characters, he infuses it into this film’s DNA in a way that’s more meaningful and relevant than ever by having it play a major role in the lives of these men. From David being an alumnus of “The House,” which refers to a historically black men’s college called Morehouse College and is actually where Lee went to school, to the mention of Crispus Attucks, widely regarded as the first person killing during the Boston Massacre and the American Revolution, Lee brings together an immense collection of black history that spans centuries and offers new insights. This change to the African American perspective also showcases a different side to the Vietnam War that usually isn’t touched on.
As the film’s central group of soldiers were fighting in Vietnam, their people were fighting a war for civil rights back in the U.S. and the film touches on they were essentially tortured by being forced to frontlines for easy targets and toyed with by the Vietnamese radio broadcasts. There’s this sense of rage that you can feeling building up within the group in flashbacks to their time in the war as they are constantly forced onto missions and directly antagonized by radio broadcasts that are trying to turn black soldiers against fellow soldiers. It’s as if these black soldiers are treated as tools rather than human beings for these two feuding sides to use how they please and it’s legitimately disheartening to see. There’s a scene of the group reacting to hearing the news about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination that’s incredibly powerful and the way that Norman speaks about their role in order to quell the group’s rage is truly what makes these characters and performances so special.
Boseman proves himself, even further than he already has, that he can be an effective and strong lead through the determination and drive he gives to Norman. However, even though Boseman is top bill in terms of recognition, the real honor of top bill goes to the film’s central group as they really represent old friends coming together after a long time and people haunted by the ghosts of war – especially Lindo’s Paul. Right from the group coming together, you can tell by the way they joke with one another and how easily old feelings, both good and bad, come back that this group is really close. Even by the way everyone talks about Norman, with Paul idolizing him and treating him with more respect than his own son, you can tell how meaningful it for them not only to accomplish Norman’s wish of them splitting the gold, but also recovering his body and bringing him home. This drive to pay respect to Norman’s memory is actually what makes the first half of the film so intriguing, but it’s even more interesting to see how time has taken its toll on them with their ideals, attitudes, beliefs now changed since the last time they were together.
Paul now finds himself to be in the outcast position of the group with him being a major Trump supporter, having a much more aggressive attitude, believing that he’s always right and that others are screwing him over, and being much more traumatized by the past than the rest of the group. He greatly suffers from PTSD in a way that Lindo makes grippingly real and the sort of downward spiral we see him go through as his rage and guilt slowly take control is what makes his story so entrancing. It’s only elevated further by Lindo’s immaculate performance that turns somebody that most people would hate into someone that you can’t help but love and care for. His story is one of tragedy that encapsulates the film’s themes about rage and the past and that’s made more clear through Lee not de-aging the actors when they are in flashbacks to the war – so that it drives home how they never really left.
Really, the whole group has issues though as Otis is attempting to reconnect with a Vietnamese woman he met during the war and Eddie is reeling from him losing the riches that the group constantly sees him for. Mel is just kind of there for the gold and while I wish he kind of had more stakes or depth in the film, he acts as the strong support within the group that instantly makes you love him. Even David suddenly appearing on the journey presents some unresolved issues between him and his father as he begins to disclose the psychological trauma that still affects Paul that leads to some harsh words and unforgivable acts. Overall, there’s a lot of great character growth that’s incredibly fulfilling and satisfying because the performances are so strong and that comes to a head in the more thrilling second half of the film.
Da 5 Bloods is probably one of Lee’s more thrilling and suspenseful films with some very bloody and surprising turns in the second half. There’re plenty of explosive moments – both through big conversational blow-ups and the group trying to navigate minefields as they attempt to head home. The action looks great and amps up the pace in the perfect moments, there’re plenty of shocking revelations that touch on the issues that followed them home as well as Norman’s actual fate, and an ending that’s satisfying and touches on relevant notions of black history – including Black Lives Matter protests. Admittedly, there’re certain elements of storytelling that easily fall under the category of “movie magic,” like a certain betrayal that befalls the group in the final fight and certain characters coincidentally being around to resolve an issue David steps into. However, this second half really hooked me and made the film’s long runtime fly by while delivering a powerful message about rage that’s a necessity to hear.
Da 5 Bloods is easily one of Lee’s most powerful joints to date and takes viewers through an immensely detailed narrative that’s an ode to black history and facing the ghosts of war. Frankly, this is the one film that makes me hopeful that an awards season is still our future for this year so that Lee, Lindo, and the film as a whole can clean up and obtain all of the recognition and attention it demands and deserves.