Review: Spike Lee's timely war epic 'Da 5 Bloods' finds love and brotherhood amid injustice
When Spike Lee goes off to war, he comes back with a complex message of love.
While the Oscar-winning filmmaker's 2008 film “Miracle at St. Anna” marched four Black American soldiers into World War II to form a bond with a young Italian boy, Lee’s new “Da 5 Bloods” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; streaming Friday on Netflix) focuses on Vietnam with aging African American veterans returning to the battlefield to deal with brotherhood, old promises and injustice, both personal and racial.
Like Lee’s fabulous '70s-set “BlacKkKlansman” two years ago, “Bloods” weaves history lessons with gripping performances and a timely, thoughtful narrative, in this instance nodding to the Black Lives Matter era. Who knows what the upcoming Oscar season will look like in a coronavirus world, but Lee nevertheless has gifted us with the first serious best-picture contender of 2020.
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Before Lee introduces his Bloods, he opens with the words of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, as well as footage of riots and protests from the late 1960s provoked by the conflict in Vietnam. Lee makes clear that Black American soldiers have a complicated history in our wars, especially the Civil War and World War II, where they were promised freedoms but instead found brutality and inequality at home.
Present-day Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the meeting place for old friends and squadmates Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). Decades earlier, the four and their leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), carried out a mission to rescue a crate of gold bars from a downed CIA aircraft.
In flashbacks, the soldiers live the grisly horrors of a war they don't really want to fight and also receive news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and the civil rights battles raging in America. With loyalties shifting inward, they bury the gold and vow to return one day. Now, as old men in need of a reunion, the Bloods are back to get their “reparations” in that same jungle. Just as important for them, though, is digging up the remains of their fallen comrade Norm, an almost mythical figure who “was our Malcolm and our Martin.”
Norm's words advice haunt them years later, including a warning about greed. Each of the Bloods is dealing with his own issues, be it nightmare-inducing PTSD, political divisions, financial strife, or loved ones left behind. Throwing a wealth of gold into the mix just adds to the inner turmoil, and outside obstacles also become involved, including a trio of landmine locators and a crew of well-armed Vietnamese officers.
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Weaving in elements of slow-burn mystery and old-guy comedy, “Da 5 Bloods” leans into an epic nature (with a run time of 2 hours and 35 minutes) and pays homage to cinematic adventures past, riffing on an infamous line from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and borrowing Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" from “Apocalypse Now.” However, the sweetest sounds on the "Bloods" soundtrack come from Terence Blanchard's heroic score and some Marvin Gaye tunes.
Lee re-creates the throwback feel of archival footage for the flashback war scenes but thankfully doesn’t de-age the older actors or use younger stand-ins. The lack of high-tech wizardry allows the pain and intensity to carry over from the characters’ violent past to their redemptive present. And Lindo, reteaming with Lee for the first time since 1995’s “Clockers,” is terrific as the tortured Paul, whose relationships with Norm and with his son David (Jonathan Majors) – who invites himself on the trip to look after his troubled dad, a proud supporter of President Donald Trump – shape the film's spiritual heart.
The best of Lee’s joints straddle the history that’s happened and the history being written now, and “Da 5 Bloods” successfully follows suit with themes of modern civil unrest and activism existing alongside images of Vietnam hero Milton L. Olive III and activist Angela Davis. “We were the very first people to die for this red, white and blue,” Norm tells his troops – and us – of Revolutionary colonist Crispus Attucks, a reminder of both the physical and metaphorical struggles that never seem to end.