Review: “Da 5 Bloods”

On a surface level, Spike Lee’s newest joint, “Da 5 Bloods,” is about Black Vietnam War veterans reuniting and reopening their traumatic past. It’s a perspective of the war that never gets represented on screen.  But in that special way that only he has, Lee connects the struggles of the past, present, and future in this incredibly urgent film that has been released at exactly the right moment in time.

In the present day, Vietnam War vets Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.)—former squad mates who dubbed themselves the Bloods—reunite in Ho Chi Minh City.  Their mission is twofold: recover the gold bars that they confiscated from a crashed CIA airplane and buried for themselves to return to later, and locate and bring home the remains of the fifth Blood, Norman (Chadwick Boseman).  Accompanied by guide Vinh (Johnny Trí Nguyễn) and Paul’s estranged son David (Jonathan Majors), who followed his dad to Vietnam and unexpectedly joins them at the last minute, the group ventures out of the city and into the countryside, where their initially joyful reunion gives way to paranoia and the reopening of old wounds.

Chadwick Boseman as Norman in “Da 5 Bloods”

To understand “Da 5 Bloods” you first have to understand that African American soldiers in Vietnam were not treated the same as their White counterparts.  Black soldiers were put on combat duty and given more dangerous roles than White soldiers, particularly in the early years of the war, resulting in a much higher casualty rate—all in defense of a country that still treats them as inferior.  In flashbacks of their time serving in the war, we see Norman explain to the other Bloods how the U.S. government has wronged them; it’s why they ultimately decide to keep the gold, which was intended as payment to Vietnamese people who aided the U.S. in the war, for themselves.  America’s continued willingness to sacrifice Black lives has profoundly affected the characters we see onscreen.  Paul is an angry, outspoken, MAGA hat-wearing Trump supporter; the hat becomes a bitter symbol of America as the film progresses.  And while David never fought in the war, and was able to get a good college education in America, he has to grapple with his father’s past as well.

In fact, almost all of the characters we see on screen in “Da 5 Bloods” are dealing with some sort of past trauma; even the younger characters like David are forced to carry this burden.  At one point in the film we meet Hedy (Mélanie Thierry), a French woman trying to atone for the way her family gained their fortune by using her wealth to found an organization to clear landmines leftover from the war.  Norman reunites with his old Vietnamese girlfriend Tiên (Lê Y Lan) and discovers that they had now-adult daughter together, who was frequently ostracized for her biracial heritage growing up.  David’s mother died giving birth to him and knows that is why his father never showed him affection.  The Vietnamese people still deal with the scars the war left on their country.  Paul, meanwhile, suffers from PTSD and carries with him a burden that dates back to their time serving in the war, a secret that he’s never revealed to anyone.  Some of them are unable to work their way through their trauma, but some of them, like Hedy or Eddie, who works with a Black Lives Matter organization, take that and try to use it to make the world a better place.

Delroy Lindo and Jonathan Majors as Paul and David in “Da 5 Bloods”

“Da 5 Bloods” has a large and talented ensemble cast that includes, in addition to the aforementioned players, Jean Reno as Desroche, a businessman who is interested in buying the gold from the Bloods once they recover it; Paul Walter Houser and Jasper Pääkkönen play Hedy’s associates Simon and Seppo; and Veronica Ngo appears as a Vietnam War-era radio personality, Hanoi Hannah.  Lindo, Peters, Lewis, and Whitlock all bring a genuine sense of fellowship to their performances.  Majors, who made an impact in last year’s “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” continues to prove what a formidable talent he has in this role that forces him to embody a wide range of emotions.  “Da 5 Bloods” also contains one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly the performance of the year so far: Delroy Lindo’s Paul, arguably the film’s lead character.  His powerful presence dominates every scene, especially as stress overwhelms him as the film progresses.  Paul is a tough character, but Lindo allows his vulnerability to bubble to the surface in a couple of key moments.  One of those scenes—a life or death situation involving Paul and David—is the highlight of the movie, an intense and moving sequence that is so effective in large part thanks to Lindo’s performance.

Spike Lee continues to operate at the top of his directing abilities with this film.  That’s not to say that “Da 5 Bloods” is perfect; it’s a bit uneven at times, particularly in its first half, and the fact that the actors play their much younger selves in flashbacks with no makeup or de-aging is initially jarring.  Lee opts instead for a change in aspect ratio between the flashback scenes and the present day instead.  In a reframing of history from another perspective, Lee also repurposes recognizable shots from White-focused Vietnam War films like “Apocalypse Now.”  He sets us up with a sort of war/heist movie combo we’re familiar with, before delivering something different.  In his signature style, Lee also uses archival footage and photographs throughout the film to give the audience a sense of where the narrative fits in to history.  As with a film like his previous feature, “Blackkklansman,” Lee connects the racial injustices of the past and the present within one narrative; “Da 5 Bloods” opens with footage of Muhammad Ali explaining why he is a conscientious objector to the war, and ends with a reference to the current Black Lives Matter movement.

“Da 5 Bloods” is Lee’s most epic film since “Malcolm X,” and is certainly one of his most ambitious.  It is filled with poignant and painful moments of reflection punctuated by chaotic action scenes and further enhanced by longtime Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard’s score.  But the bullets don’t actually fly that often, making the scenes leading up to those moments some of the most tense I’ve seen on screen recently.  “Da 5 Bloods” is another outstanding addition to Lee’s towering body of work, pressing its audience to question what they know, but ending not on a note of despair—which would be easy enough during this time—but of hope.

“Da 5 Bloods” is now streaming on Netflix. Runtime: 154 minutes. Rated R. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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