With Da 5 Bloods, which debuts on Netflix Friday, Spike Lee takes his turn making an ultra-ambitious, two-and-a-half-hour epic about the Vietnam War, in the tradition of Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Platoon. Spike being Spike, of course, has a lot more on his mind, much of it having to do with the racial legacy of the war, and of American history itself.
In his first movie since his Oscar-winning BlacKKlansman, Lee is trying to do many many things with this film, and he doesn’t perfectly succeed in tying everything together. But there are a lot of special things in Da 5 Bloods, and needless to say, it’s landing at the perfect time.
Da 5 Bloods is set mostly in the present day, as a quartet of African-American men who fought together in the Vietnam War (Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, and Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) return to Vietnam, with a new mission: They want to recover the remains of their squad leader (Chadwick Boseman), who died in the war, while also bringing home millions in bars of gold also left behind the war. They’re later joined by the Lindo character’s son (Jonathan Majors, from last year’s great The Last Black Man in San Francisco.)
While the gold part is a homage to Kelly’s Heroes and its Gulf War semi-remake Three Kings, Da 5 Bloods is heavily influenced by the existing Vietnam War canon. The Apocalypse Now echoes are plentiful, including a slow boat ride up a river scored to “Ride of the Valkyries,” while the flashback scenes very much resemble Oliver Stone’s Platoon.
Then there’s that somewhat disreputable genre of Reagan-era movies (Missing in Action, Rambo: First Blood Part II) in which a Vietnam veteran returns to the country and refights the war while rescuing his buddies that were still being held, prisoner. The characters come right out and mock those movies, but in a sense, they’re in one of them. Then again, the film hints at the notion that their mission may go down as yet another imperialist folly, just like the actual Vietnam War.
But of course, the first voice we hear in the film is that of Muhammad Ali, from a news clip around the time he was contesting his induction into the U.S. Army, and Lee is clearly very interested in telling the specific stories about the experiences of black soldiers who fought in Vietnam, and what happened to them after they came home. The film, shot in Vietnam as well as Thailand, also shows us much Vietnam has changed in the decades since- while still nominally a communist country, it now has a KFC.
The film follows the group’s twin missions in Vietnam, and with an early scene, in which the four men banter and share their political disagreements, recalling Lee’s 1996 film Get on the Bus. That the main plots appear to resolve themselves at the film’s halfway point indicates that things are going to go in an unexpected direction. And at that halfway point comes the best movie scene of the year so far, a sustained, ten-minute suspense sequence that wouldn’t have been out of place in The Hurt Locker.
There are also some absolutely beautiful shot compositions, thanks to cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.
The cast is strong from top to bottom, but the true standout is Delroy Lindo, who’s rarely cast in anything anymore and especially doesn’t get much of a chance to shine like this. It’s also great to see Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock, both veterans of Lee’s films as well as The Wire, getting prominent roles, which they make the most of. There are also strong supporting roles for the likes of Jean Reno, and Paul Walter Hauser.
The film’s many ambitions are a lot to juggle, and the lack of a clear throughline is what ultimately makes the film fall just short of greatness. It won’t go down as one of his Spike Lee’s major works, of which I consider the “big three” to be Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X and 25th Hour. But this is a film that’s going to start conversations, that I look forward to being a part of.