Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods begins with a long montage of archival footage that ranges through the ’60s and ’70s, including images of Muhammad Ali, Lyndon B. Johnson, Neil Armstrong, Angela Davis warning of fascism coming to the U.S., and the fall of Saigon. No spoilers, but the film as well ends with another montage, this time of present-day images: a military casket’s arrival at an airfield, a group of landmine activists and Vietnamese amputees, and a Black Lives Matter meeting. “After you’ve been in a war, you understand it never really ends,” a character observes at one point in the film. That in itself is far from a new notion. However, the spin Lee puts on it is, capturing that it’s all actually one big war that’s been going on for centuries — that racism, poverty, imperialism, and the poisoning of the world are all gnarled branches of the same grim tree. And at various points, we’ve all helped water it.
The film’s urgency at this particular moment is self-evident, and so while it’s not exactly escapist entertainment, Lee still reminds us that his notorious powers of provocation are inseparable from his his often under-appreciated skills as a raw storyteller. So whatever timing label you want to put on it may stand, but what’s notable is the way in which Lee, equally steeped in American history and classic Hollywood, translates frustration cinematically, refracting it through a series of durable storytelling prisms. Written by Lee and Kevin Willmott and based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, Da 5 Bloods strongly invokes epics like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Apocalypse Now, with dashes of Last Flag Flying and Rambo. But whatever formulation you prefer, the film — full of fiery combat sequences and shifting aspect ratios, cynical tough talk and big, sweeping emotions — strives mightily to find a dramatic balance worthy of it. Yes, it’s not always graceful, but how could it be? It’s by turns a platoon picture, a heist thriller, a Black history lesson and a grumpy-old-men rendezvous, all spliced together with documentary footage, a surging and rich Terence Blanchard score and a soundtrack that mixes “Ride of the Valkyries” with blasts of Marvin Gaye.
The film centers on the titular aging Bloods in the present day as we meet them early on in Ho Chi Minh City: there’s Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a family man and a fount of warm comic relief, Eddie (Norm Lewis) the genial figurehead of a lucrative car-dealership empire, the mastermind of the their trip Otis (Clarke Peters), a shrewd cool-headed operator, but then there’s Paul (Delroy Lindo), a widower with a short fuse and an estranged son, David (Jonathan Majors), who has unexpectedly tagged along for their trip. After nearly fifty years, the four older men have returned to Vietnam on a personal mission, and for a little bit it’s all good times as they joke and reminisce, but soon, as they settle more into the country, you begin to sense the presence of ghosts both personal and historical. For Paul, who dominates the group physically and emotionally, postwar life has been a series of brutal losses and disappointments, all of which have turned him into a resentful, paranoid, immigrant-hating Trump supporter. And Lindo brings a possible career-best fiery to a man who emerges as the toughest member of this small, world-weary battalion and also the most vulnerable.
Paul’s anguish is rooted in the loss of the Bloods’ beloved leader, affectionately known as “Stormin’ Norman,” who was killed in combat in 1971. In flashbacks to that fateful tour of duty, Norman (Chadwick Boseman) is shown setting the plot in motion when he and his four comrades recover a large stash of gold bars on a downed plane, one that was originally sent by the U.S. to secure the allegiance of Lahu fighters against the Viet Cong. The Bloods have other plans for it. Infuriated by a war that has taken a cruelly disproportionate toll on Black soldiers, compounding the loss of Black lives in the civil rights movement, they bury the gold and vow to return for it later so that it can benefit their communities back home. And so as the four surviving Bloods head back downriver and into the jungle (captured quite stunningly by Newton Thomas Sigel’s format-shifting cinematography), Da 5 Bloods becomes a rare Hollywood hybrid: a treasure hunt that hinges on a case for repartitions. And as the movie makes clear, this particular brand of retribution will be as difficult to achieve as it is long overdue. Twists of fate have delayed the Bloods’ trip for decades. Finding the stash will be hard; smuggling it out will be even harder. To help them along the way the Bloods have ranging allies and possible adversaries: a Vietnamese guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyễn), Otis’s former lover Tien (Le Y Lan), a smug profiteer (Jean Reno), and a trio of humanitarian workers (Mélanie Thierry, Jasper Pääkkönen and Paul Walter Hauser) who specialize in clearing old land mines.
For their part, Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie are longtime buddies who often find themselves at odds with one another. And Lee, never one to subscribe to a monolithic ideal of Black masculinity, explodes stereotypes with his usual poise. (Seen throughout in many ways, but the strongest being a fascinating usage/passing of a MAGA hat throughout the film, of which suggests American history’s possession of Donald Trump.) Much of the pleasure of the movie comes from the men’s nonstop banter, and if the arguments sometimes seem rigged or overblown, they are rarely under-felt. There are complaints about hip cramps and mosquitoes. There are campfire reckonings, sudden betrayals and tear-jerking plot turns, including one that throws Paul and David’s long-running ups and downs into sharp relief.
And eventually there are drawn guns, raised knives and eruptions of violence that jolt the men and the audience out of their complacency. The tonal shifts can be so abrupt that they almost induce whiplash, not to mention a kind of moral and narrative chaos, yet all of which seems to be very much to the movie’s point. The rich, tumultuous history of Black life over the past century could certainly find a worse cinematic analogue than this heady swirl of wry comedy, seductive music, ferocious argument and devastating carnage. And Lee continually calls our attention back to that history, not only with the aforementioned archival footage, but also with cutaways to Black men like Milton L. Olive III, who was only eighteen when he gave his life for his country in Vietnam (and also was later rewarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first African-American to do so).
The intermittent flashbacks offer us a glimpse of Paul, Otis, Melvin and Eddie when they were closer to Olive’s age. But in perhaps Lee’s most radical touch — and also his most old-fashioned — he has Lindo, Peters, Whitlock and Lewis play the younger versions of themselves, without any attempts to de-age them Irishman-style. And while Lee has noted that it was a budgetary decision, it still remains the right choice, delivering an immediacy to their memories. It’s in these actors’ weary faces, incongruously bridging the divide between past and present, where we see the most literal possible visualization of a war without end. Uncompromisingly wrestling with specters of the past and present, Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee at his most vital; crafting a stirring, anguished, funny, and violent excursion into the dark, rotting pit that is America’s heart.
Da 5 Bloods is available to stream on Netflix