Da 5 Bloods review: A war movie like no other
Ivan Radford | On 13, Jun 2020
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: Delroy Lindo, Isiah Whitlock Jr, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Chadwick Boseman
Watch Da 5 Bloods online in the UK: Netflix UK
What’s going on? That’s the question asked early on in Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee’s remarkable new joint, not only by one of the film’s characters but also by Marvin Gaye on its soundtrack. The song, released in 1971, was part of the album of the same name written from the perspective of a Vietnam vet returning to America only to be shocked by the suffering at home. It was specifically written in response to police brutality during an anti-war protest. Spike Lee follows Gaye’s lead in tying those two things together, and uses that through-line to create a war movie about racial injustice, coming to terms with the past and brotherly bonds. It’s part-history lesson, part-anti-war demo, part-heist movie and all solid gold.
The five bloods of the title are a group of soldiers who fought together in Vietnam and, in one of their final sorties, recovered a stash of bullion from a crashed CIA plane that was intended for South Vietnamese troops. Now older and in mourning for the fifth blood who died during the war – Chadwick Boseman’s squad leader, Norman – four of the crew team up for a trip back to former enemy territory: Paul (Delroy Lindo), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr), Otis (Clarke Peters) and Eddie (Norm Lewis). They’re there to look back, pay their respects to their missing companion – and also recover that gold for themselves, having buried it to retrieve later.
It’s an act of remembrance but more crucially one of reparation, and the notion of putting wrongs right, reclaiming some semblance of equity, underpins Da 5 Bloods’ powerful impact. These men are joined together by their shared sacrifice, having put their lives on the line for a country that, decades later, continues to deny them a rightful place in a society where police brutality and racial assaults are still commonplace. Not that you’d ever hear about such experiences in Hollywood’s predominantly white war movie genre.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that Paul is tired of not getting his, latching on to the message of disenfranchisement touted by Donald Trump and even voting for him to become President. It’s a decision Paul admits proudly, sporting a garishly red MAGA cap – and it fuels the fascinating dynamics that unfold between these old friends, who are all haunted by memories of Norman and would never be able to split up, even over something so fiercely divisive.
Lee takes his time to let us get to know them, from the amusing Melvin and cool, calm Otis to seemingly successful businessman Eddie. The ensemble cast are impeccable, instantly believable and weighed down with PTSD as much as they are buoyed by being in each other’s presence once more. They’re accompanied by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), and tour guide Vinh (Johnny Tri Nguyen), whom Otis finds through his old flame, Tien (Le Y Lan).
David and Tien’s understated presence raises poignant questions of passing down legacies from one generation to the next. The past and present then collide in dazzling fashion during the blistering action sequences that light up the second half, as Lee films his protagonists without any use of de-ageing technology; they run through the set pieces with an ungainly, sweaty awkwardness, and a weary awareness that only comes in hindsight of the futility of their actions. They’re contrasted beautifully with Chadwick Boseman, who is glowingly youthful and commands immediate authority whenever in frame. That includes a moment when he persuades his men not to mutiny, after they hear of Martin Luther King’s assassination over the radio and are told by the Vietnamese that they owe America nothing.
Lee juggles the two timelines with a bravura use of alternating aspect ratios, ratcheting up the suspense to breathless heights in one scene involving a landmine. Leaning into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as well as Apocalypse Now, it’s a film steeped in meta-textual wit and brazen visual and verbal references – all part of Lee’s quest to explicitly correct the familiar history book and cinema narratives. A shout-out most notably goes to Milton Lee Olive III, the first African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honour after Vietnam. Throughout, our band of brothers tellingly refer to the conflict as “the American war”, the same term the Vietnamese use for an unjust war that they never wanted and that left everyone worse off – even the plethora of French characters who appear in supporting roles make it clear how much their own countrymen suffered.
The result is an exploration of patriotism and pride on multiple layers, a thought-provoking study of the line between coming to terms with what’s already happened and holding on to grudges and greed. It all comes to a head in Lindo’s astonishing central performance, which deserves all the awards going. Lindo, after working with Lee on Malcolm X, Clockers and Crooklyn, has recently enjoyed a meaty lead role in legal drama The Good Fight, and it’s a joy to see him given an even bigger showcase here, moving from righteous rage to destructive selfishness, from yelling at Vietnamese street vendors to delivering powerful soliloquies to camera – all while grappling with a long-held guilt and, in one memorably bloody moment, facing off against a snake.
Paul is a figure of pain, sadness and loneliness, and he ultimately can only turn to Marvin Gaye’s God Is Love to reconcile his many inner contradictions. “He made this world for us to live in, and gave us everything, and all he asks of us is we give each other love,” he sings, as much to himself as to anyone else – less your typical descent into madness and grief and more a growing conviction of the need to love and support each other.
Occasionally messy, but vividly so, Da 5 Bloods is an ambitious epic that’s as thrilling as it is urgently relevant. It would be astonishing how timely the film’s release on Netflix is, in the weeks after the tragic death of George Floyd, if it weren’t for the fact that this is exactly the movie’s point: 45 years after the Vietnam War ended, Da 5 Bloods reminds us that the war to show society that Black lives matter hasn’t ended. And yet, for all its urgent anger, Lee also finds optimism in the way that younger generations are standing up to support the fight. That, in the face of atrocities that are still happening, is what’s going on.
Da 5 Bloods is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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