The first time I wanted to stand up and applaud during Da 5 Bloods happened around two and a half minutes into the movie. After a passionate, powerful and visceral montage setting the political stage around the Vietnam War and particularly the treatment of Black American soldiers, the frame elegantly expands from boxy 4:3 ratio to an ultra-widescreen 2.39:1 as the action switches to modern day Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a goosebump-inducing cinematic flourish that sets the stage for an audacious, visceral big screen epic from the uncompromising Spike Lee. Maestro, take a bow.
Da 5 Bloods is a chronicle both of changing times and of steadfastly unmoved prejudices. The “bloods” of the title are four veterans who travel back to the forests of Vietnam, ostensibly to locate the remains of their fallen leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), but also to dredge up the crate of American gold they discovered and buried shortly before his death. For some, it’s about the money, while for others the memory of their deceased comrade is the driving force behind their pilgrimage.
The joy of watching Da 5 Bloods is that it boils over with ideas and, as a result, seems to metamorphose in front of its audience into something entirely new every few minutes. It’s sometimes an angry treatise on historical racism and the insidious tendrils it still wraps around America, often a brothers-in-arms road movie and, by the end, a nail-biting thriller moving inexorably towards a blood-soaked conclusion.
Lee has assembled a terrific ensemble cast, led by Delroy Lindo as Paul — a Trump supporter who blames much of modern day America’s problems on Mexican immigrants and wants to build the wall. He’s a coiled spring of rage, guilt and post-traumatic stress who seems permanently just a misjudged comment away from exploding, whether it’s at his more mild-mannered “bloods” or his son David (Jonathan Majors), who joins their journey. Lindo’s performance is as heart-breaking as it is terrifying, with Lee positioning the character on a knife-edge that ensures he never becomes a villain, even as his questionable actions mount up. Whether he’s delivering Shakespearean soliloquies directly down the camera lens or weeping in the arms of one of his friends, Lindo is never less than achingly believable. Awards season surely beckons.
The rest of the cast is strong too, with musical veteran Norm Lewis delivering a soulful performance and Clarke Peters shining as the level-headed de facto organiser of the group. Majors, too, deserves special praise for his complex take on a young man torn between his father’s increasingly extreme views and his own perspective on the world.
Regular flashbacks depict the group’s quasi-mythical memories of the war, with the same actors portraying their younger selves — free of Irishman-style de-aging in a compelling take on the nature of romanticised, unreliable memory. Boseman’s Norman, described as being “both our Malcolm and our Martin” to his brothers, is often depicted as if glowing, saint-like. He’s a Messiah figure these men followed and have continued to hold up as their paragon of virtue, torn from them by a crooked war in which thousands of people who looked like them were sent to die.
This is every inch a Spike Lee joint and, as such, it’s raggedy and ill-disciplined. But that suits the epic feel here, bathed in homages both explicit and implicit to Apocalypse Now and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and infused with a jukebox soundtrack — Marvin Gaye is used to particularly powerful effect — to complement Terence Blanchard’s expertly judged score. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel is also on masterful form, whether it’s depicting the urgency and terror of the boxy, grainy flashbacks or by surrounding the cast with the verdant infinity of the forests to which they now return in the present day. Older? Certainly. Wiser? Perhaps. But definitely smaller than they felt when they last walked these lands.
Da 5 Bloods is certainly attempting to be a lot of movies at once, which makes it even more astonishing that it excels at all of them. It handles American imperialism, police brutality and the tyranny of Trump, while also slipping in poignant nods to the Black Lives Matter movement, which could not possibly me more relevant than they are right now as we are all boiled within the crucible of protest, upheaval and — one can only hope — real, long-lasting change.
This would always have been an essential movie but, in a world starved of cinema as a result of a global health emergency, Da 5 Bloods feels like an even more valuable artefact. It’s incendiary, potent filmmaking conjured by an artist whose vision hums with the energy of rage, as if on the cutting edge of a historic movement. This is cinema at its most captivating, energising and galvanising. It’s less Good Morning, Vietnam and more Wake Up, World. Spike Lee has something to say, and no one can silence him.
Dir: Spike Lee
Scr: Spike Lee, Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, Kevin Willmott
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Chadwick Boseman, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Johnny Nguyen, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno
Prd: Spike Lee, Jon Kilik, Beatriz Levin, Lloyd Levin
DOP: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: Terence Blanchard
Run time: 155 mins
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix now.