Timing is everything. Then again, great filmmaking is great filmmaking no matter the surroundings. But in the case of director Spike Lee’s latest, Da 5 Bloods, the film feels so of-the-moment that you could almost swear he made it yesterday—a quality it shares with his previous feature, the Oscar-winning BlacKkKlansman. The film opens with a quick recap of Black American history in the late 1960s, especially as it applies to the Vietnam War. But it also incorporates major events like the moon landing and various speeches by notable Black leaders, many of whom were assassinated or otherwise silenced in that period or shortly thereafter. And then there are the protests—so much footage of protests that it almost seems deliberate; wouldn’t that be amazing?
The soundtrack for this few minutes of footage is Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” and at a particular point, we clearly hear the lyric: “Trigger happy policing.” I don’t know if Lee has adjusted anything about this film in the last two weeks, but I kind of doubt it. Once again, he proves just how tapped into the sensibility of the times he truly is, and it’s chilling. Gaye’s music is the primary emotional thread of the film’s soundtrack, primarily songs from his landmark 1971 album What’s Going On, which never seems to lose its relevance or power no matter what decade we’re in. Lee uses a vocal-only performance of the title track quite beautifully in key scenes, and it feels like the characters are entering into a dream they don’t necessarily want to be having.
The film is set primarily in modern times, as four Vietnam veterans return to the place they fought to look for the remains of a fallen fifth member of their tight-knit group. But they’re also after a long-buried (by them) crate of gold bars that they discovered in the wreckage of a CIA cargo plane meant to pay off their allies in the country. Their squad leader, Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman, Black Panther), suggests they bury the gold and come back for it when things have cooled down, but then he’s killed and the plan is put off several decades.
A Lee favorite, the super-charged Delroy Lindo plays Paul, who has turned fairly right-wing over the years and even spends part of the film wearing a red MAGA hat. He’s clearly suffering from a great deal of mental trauma, refusing any kind of help and becoming more and more paranoid as the retrieval mission goes on. His grown son (Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) surprises his father and tags along for the journey in an effort to mend severely damaged bridges between them. Also on hand are Otis (another recent Lee regular, Clarke Peters), who made most of the arrangements through an old flame in Vietnam; Eddie (Norm Lewis), a self-made man who is struggling financially at the moment and really needs this gold to be found; and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr., a veteran of “The Wire,” like Peters), who seems like the only one without deep issues going into this journey.
I’m sure I won’t be the only one to come up with this parallel, but Lee essentially sends his characters on their own Heart of Darkness voyage (a scenario underscored by a big Apocalypse Now banner in a bar the team visits on the night before they leave). With every step, each man is pushed a little deeper into their own personal hell, whether it’s physical pain (at least one, maybe two, of these men could have issues with opioids). At one point, Paul admits that he sees the ghost of Norman every night, and has frequent and lengthy conversations with him. If you could bottle whatever is possessing Lindo in this movie, you could sell it as rocket fuel. He’s positively crackling on screen, and we’re both fascinated by and terrified of his next move.
The discovery of the gold and Norman’s remains are weirdly simple tasks, but that’s probably because they aren’t the real purpose of Da 5 Bloods. Things are meant to come easy at first because what happens in the second half of this very long movie (just over two-and-a-half hours) is the slow and awful unraveling. They cross paths with a trio of do-gooders attempting to rid the jungle of landmines (French actress Mélanie Thierry, Finnish actor Jasper Pääkkönen, and Richard Jewel and BlacKkKlansman star Paul Walter Hauser), so every step they take from that scene forward becomes increasingly tense. Naturally, things don’t go well when these two teams meet, as Paul’s paranoia kicks into overdrive and he sees the other group as a threat rather than people who could lead them out of the jungle safely.
One of the most mind-bending choices Lee makes is to use his middle-aged lead actors in the flashback scenes with Boseman, which puts something of a spin on anything we see or hear in those moments. Can we trust whoever is having the memory? Are these moments idealized or factual? We’re told everyone idolized Norman, so perhaps this portrait is accurate. Or, they’ve made him into the true hero of their story because he’s the one who didn’t make it back. It would likely require repeat viewing of Da 5 Bloods to make these determinations, but the one thing that these scenes do reveal is that these older actors are in better shape than most of us and are simply playing up any physical limitations that are on display in the more current timeline.
If memory serves, the original script by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo was taken through a fairly radical rewrite by Lee and Kevin Willmott (Chi-Raq, BlacKkKlansman), and what seems to be added or adjusted is the perspective. The film clearly incorporates the Black experience during wartime—soldiers are promised a degree of freedom or equality if they serve, and when they return, things remain unchanged in their lives. At one point, someone in the cast refers to Black soldiers during Vietnam as cannon-fodder, sent in ahead of the white troops to be shot at and reveal the enemy’s position.
Strangely enough, in the film’s final few big sequences, it begins to show signs of being a fairly conventional action movie. But even then, Lee has done such impressive work getting us to care so much about these lost souls that the life-or-death stakes seem so much higher. The commentary on history is not only rampant but it seems strangely, disappointingly timeless, as the criticism of Nixon fits comfortably next to statements about our current leadership. Da 5 Bloods makes it crystal clear that the horrors of war aren’t just about dying; those who are dead don’t have to remember the way the living do. It’s difficult to imagine a film better suited for this very day than this one.
The film will be available on Netflix beginning Friday.
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