Spike Lee's Vietnam Epic 'Da 5 Bloods' Uncovers Buried Bombs, Both Personal and Political
Early in “Da 5 Bloods,” Spike Lee’s lacerating new Vietnam epic that premieres this week on Netflix, a French woman working for an NGO devoted to defusing landmines and other unexploded ordnance muses on how mines planted decades ago “are still harvesting death all these years later.” That’s probably the savviest thematic summary you’ll find of Spike’s sprawling saga about four elderly veterans returning to Vietnam to collect the remains of their beloved squad leader. It’s a film about buried bombs, both personal and political. No matter how long you try to ignore them, sooner or later they’re going to blow.
Working from a screenplay by “The Rocketeer” writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo that was very nearly directed by Oliver Stone, Lee and his “BlacKkKlansman” collaborator Kevin Willmott flipped the script and made the main characters African Americans, opening up entirely new avenues for exploration heretofore woefully underrepresented in Hollywood war movies. “Da 5 Bloods” was supposed to premiere out of competition at this year’s COVID-canceled Cannes Film Festival, where Spike had been slated to serve as the first-ever Black jury president. A planned theatrical release for this summer was scuttled as well. As much as I wish we could have seen it on a big screen, in light of all that’s going on in the country right now, I think a new Spike Lee movie showing up in everybody’s living rooms this weekend is a very good thing for the world.
A friend of mine joked the other day that Spike makes every film as if it were both his first and his last, and in keeping with tradition “Da 5 Bloods” is jam-packed with more ideas and concepts than its 156-minute running time can comfortably juggle. Like most of Lee’s pictures, it’s passionately — some will say pugnaciously — engaged with history, pushes at the boundaries of the cinematic medium and probably bites off a little more than it can chew. The film is at once a gentle septuagenarian road picture, a fire-breathing polemic, a harrowing depiction of PTSD, a meditation on reparations and also a rollicking remake of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” complete with gory, old-man action sequences straight out of “The Expendables.” It’s an awful lot.
Yet what a pleasure to be served a cup that overfloweth so! I’d much rather watch a film that tries to do too much than one that attempts too little, and there are scenes here that will bounce around your brainpan for days after you thought you were done with them. The movie begins with Muhammad Ali’s famous renunciation of the draft, followed by a blisteringly edited montage of archival footage and photographs set to Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” From the jump, “Da 5 Bloods” depicts the bitterly ironic plight of Black soldiers, drafted at disproportionate rates to their wealthier white counterparts, shipped overseas to serve as cannon fodder for a country that hates them at home.
Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Norm Lewis star as the four surviving “Bloods,” old friends returning with wide eyes to a tourist-friendly Saigon dominated by luxury hotels and fast-food franchises. (There’s even a nightclub named “Apocalypse Now.”) They’re ostensibly there to bring back the body of their fallen commander Stormin’ Norman — played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman — but the real reason for their trip soon reveals itself: before the firefight in which their C.O. was killed, the platoon discovered a downed CIA plane containing a stash of gold intended to bribe Vietnamese locals. The boys buried it 50 years ago and are now coming to collect. Complications ensue.
Lee and Willmott are both full-time cinema studies professors, and “Da 5 Bloods” is as much a movie about war as it is about war movies. Like their previous collaborations “BlacKkKlansman” and “Chi-Raq,” the film is constantly in the process of deconstructing its own iconography — reflexive in a way that’s unafraid to remind us we’re watching a film, capitalizing on our familiarity with clichés and genre tropes to both playful and productive ends. There are a term paper’s worth of references here, as when Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is lifted from the aforementioned “Apocalypse Now” and repurposed to score a bunch of senior citizens boarding a puttering tourist skiff. When the plot turns start to mimic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” you can be damn sure it won’t be long before someone says they don’t need no stinking badges.
This intertextual cleverness extends to the casting of Boseman as the fabled Stormin’ Norman, a beatific warrior-philosopher in the vein of Willem Dafoe’s Elias in “Platoon.” (“He was our Malcolm and our Martin,” Peters explains.) It’s a role so outsized perhaps only Chadwick Boseman could’ve pulled it off, calling upon our recognition of the actor not just as Marvel’s Black Panther but also a resume full of biopics in which he’s played Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. In a Brechtian stunt that works shockingly well, Lee resists any “Irishman” style digital de-aging of the principal actors during the flashback sequences, putting these pudgy, out-of-shape old guys in combat alongside Boseman’s impossibly young and strapping legend, forever in their minds at his prime.
Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel toggles through a variety of film and digital formats as well as alternating aspect ratios to establish the different timelines and locations, the screen’s size expanding and contracting with a flourish like curtains opening and closing. (My goodness, this must look beautiful in a movie theater.) Terence Blanchard’s mournful score is augmented by songs from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” album, sometimes mixed and manipulated as when just his isolated vocal track from the title tune is played beneath a jungle chase, transforming an action scene into something infinitely sadder and more mysterious.
The ever-underrated Delroy Lindo gives a towering performance as the most damaged of the Bloods, a seethingly resentful, embittered old man in a MAGA hat. (The red cap becomes a terrible totem in the movie, which cheekily captions news footage of our current leader as “President Fake Bone Spurs.”) It’s Lindo’s character who succumbs to the gold fever paranoia of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs from “Sierra Madre,” and to be honest the genre trappings of “Da 5 Bloods” are its least interesting aspects, as Spike’s always been better with personality and politics than plot. I think Lindo’s performance might have been even more powerful had Lee indulged a little less of it — maybe one madman monologue delivered directly into the camera instead of two — as his monomania becomes tiresome at times and tilts the movie's delicate balancing act. (Though full confession, I was never all that crazy about the Dobbs stuff in “Sierra Madre” either.)
But most of all “Da 5 Bloods” is determined to rattle our perceptions of how we watch these things in the first place. I still can’t shake an early flashback scene that shows some young Vietcong soldiers chatting amiably about their girlfriends, only to be ambushed and gunned down by our protagonists, who strike hero poses while triumphant music swells. The inclusion of a French rubber plantation heiress working for that bomb removal NGO isn’t just a historical footnote, but rather part of the screenplay’s attempt to address issues of plunder and accountability across generations. “Da 5 Bloods” is more than just a movie, it’s a minefield.
“Da 5 Bloods” begins streaming on Netflix this Friday, July 12.