The hunt for buried gold neither ends well nor goes off without a hitch. The long road to reconciliation, whether with one’s trauma, family or national identity, is never without bumps. Glue these truths together with the weathering effects of institutional racism, add myriad references to history—American history, music history, film history—and you get Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, a classically styled Vietnam action picture made in his cinematic vision. As in 2018’s BlacKkKlansman, Lee connects the dots between past and present, linking the struggle for civil rights couched in conscientious objection and protest to contemporary America’s own struggle against state-sanctioned fascism.
Working off a script co-written with Kevin Willmott, Lee has laid out a bewildering task for himself, and perhaps has bitten off slightly more than he can chew. But Lee is one of few living filmmakers who can overshoot their ambitions and create coherent, meaningful art out of excess. Da 5 Bloods looms and lumbers, but the movie works, not because of nor despite the mess he makes of his endless array of character arcs and culture touchstones assembled in the telling of his story, but because he’s a master at weaving together the micro and the macro in awesome fashion. The film is overwhelming, dizzying, not easily consumed on first viewing, but it’s also powerful, affecting and so stuffed with great work in front of and behind the camera that Lee’s outsized intentions wind up feeling like part of the experience.
After opening with a montage of events comprising and figures speaking out against the Vietnam War, referred to predominantly as the American War throughout the rest of the movie, Lee introduces four of the five bloods: Otis (Clarke Peters), Paul (Delroy Lindo), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), bonded Vietnam vets returned to Ho Chi Minh City ostensibly to find and recover the bones of their fallen squad leader, Norman (Chadwick Boseman). There’s more, of course, “more” being around $17 million in gold bars planted in Vietnamese soil, property of the CIA but reappropriated by the Bloods as reparations for their personal suffering as men fighting a war for a country governed by people who don’t care about their rights.
That’s the primary plot, best thought of as a clothesline from which the film’s secondary, tertiary and quaternary plots hang. Paul, for instance, voted for Donald Trump, a detail meant to illustrate that Black Americans aren’t a monolith and also that anyone let down so thoroughly by a system nominally designed for all, but which in actuality serves only a few, might gravitate toward a guy happy to demonize whatever groups and persons he likes as long as demonization earns him votes. Paul lives with a heavy case of PTSD, his anger and outbursts kept in check by the will of Otis, who functions as the group’s de facto leader and conscience. He has an old flame, too, Tiên (Lê Y Lan), and a daughter he didn’t even know he had. Oh, and also also, Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), has followed them and means to tag along on their journey, which involves Tiên’s business associate, Desroches (Jean Reno), a Frenchman willing to launder their money for a steep commission.
There’s more, and even more than that, and more still, like the NGOs self-tasked with finding and disarming the Chekov’s landmines that still litter the jungle decades after the American War’s end, but “more” should be discovered by Lee’s audience, who will only be able to watch Da 5 Bloods from their couches. This is a big damn shame: Da 5 Bloods would play like gangbusters on a big screen suited for its bloody gunfights and haunting emotional breakdowns, especially Paul’s, who, after succumbing to gold fever in the film’s second hour, goes off on a fourth-wall-breaking monologue that’ll earn Lindo statues and accolades if the world be just. Everyone here does fine work, but Paul ranks among Lindo’s finest. He’s a man apart, broken by the war, his pieces broken further on his return home, and the fragment left behind broken beyond repair over the course of his days leading up to the quest for Norman and riches.
It’s no wonder Paul worships his memory the way Christians worship Jesus: Norman is a hell of a man, one who’d stand between his friends and their demons, and even death if necessary. Boseman cuts a movie star’s figure in all of his work, so it’s appropriate that Lee washes his flashback sequences in the grain of cinema ranging from the 1940s to the 1980s: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. In these scenes, Lee shrinks the aspect ratio to 4:3, tightening the focus and our proximity to the characters, effectively heightening the tension by consequence: He has a blast staging gory, violent shootouts between the Bloods and the Viet Cong, action beats falling outside his usual directorial purview.
Lee’s at the height of his powers, though, when bluntly making the case that for as much time as has passed since the Vietnam War’s conclusion, America’s still stubbornly waging the same wars on its own people and, for that matter, the rest of the fucking world. And Lee is still angry at and discontent with the status quo, being the continued oppression of Black Americans throughpolice brutality, voter suppression and medical neglect. In this context, Da 5 Bloods’ breadth is almost necessary. As Paul would say: Right on.
Director: Spike Lee
Writers: Spike Lee, Kevin Willmott
Starring: Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Norman Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman, Jonathan Majors, Mélanie Thierry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Jean Reno, Lê Y Lan, Johnny Trí Nguy?n
Release Date: June 12, 2020 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.